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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NPR Features “Barge Companies Follow Trains and Toot Their Horn”

On December 6, 2011, NPR’s program All Things Considered featured a story, “Barge Companies Follow Trains and Toot Their Horn” by Blake Farmer, that highlighted the inland waterways industry’s benefits to America and included comments from Merritt Lane, CBC’s President and CEO. To listen to the story, please click here.

The transcript of the story is below.

Barge Companies Follow Trains and Toot Their Horn
By Blake Farmer

The railroad industry has been tooting its own horn over the last three years, letting the world know how efficiently cargo can move by rail. Now barge companies are hopping on that same public relations train.

They’re trying to get noticed in the infrastructure spending debate, which often stops with the three “Rs” of transportation – roadways, runways and railways. The barge industry is introducing a fourth “R” rivers.

The nation’s 12,000 miles of navigable waterway touch 38 states. But for the most part, barges operate in the shadows, under bridges and on lonely stretches of river.

“We certainly need to work harder to be as visible and we’re trying to do that,” says Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president of one of the largest barge companies in America – Ingram, based in Nashville.

He says the industry can no longer afford to stay out of sight. River infrastructure has outlived its 50-year life expectancy. Failure of a major lock or dam could bring commercial traffic to a halt.

Repairs will take big bucks. And to win public support, Mecklenborg says barge companies are trying to one-up the railroads.

“We’re even better”
“Our message is, we’re even better,” he says.

“In fact,” states a TV commercial from the barge industry, “barges have the best record among rail and truck.”

The claim is based on the research of Jim Kruse at the Texas Transportation Institute. He says moving by river is certainly a slow alternative.

“But it is by far the most efficient way to move things when you talk about fuel consumed and emissions being put into the atmosphere,” he says.

Tug boats still burn a lot of fuel – several thousand gallons a day. But they move a lot of cargo too.

Merritt Lane is CEO of Canal Barge Company out of New Orleans and says with the whole PR push, he’s started putting the scale in terms people understand.

Understandable terms
“Instead of talking about a grain barge moving 1500 tons of wheat, that’s 2.5 million loafs of bread or that [one] gasoline barge can move enough gasoline to keep 2,500 automobiles running for a year,” he says. “That means a little more to John Q Public.”

It would take 12 dozen tractor trailers to haul that much gas. Putting it on a barge is not only more efficient, Lane says, it also keeps those trucks off the crowded highways.

An Ingram tow boat loaded down with coal approaches a lock on the winding Cumberland River. Deckhands in yellow rain suits radio instructions to the captain.

“Need to come up on your port about six inches,” one says.

This is the pinch point where barge companies depend on government. Locks function like elevators on the water…that is, unless they’re broken. Then they’re just roadblocks.

On the way up, the chamber fills with water to raise the boat to the lake level behind the dam. Ingram’s David Edgin points to water spewing through seals in a 50-year-old gate.

“It didn’t use to do that,” he says. “To me it’s a sign of the times.”

Elsewhere, catastrophe has been narrowly avoided. On the Ohio River, a 250-ton gate snapped off its hinges. In October, a concrete lock wall collapsed.

“It used to be preventive maintenance. We would fund things in advance of breaking,” says the Army Corps of Engineers’ Jeff Ross.

Fix it as it breaks
The Corps’ $180 million annual repair budget is only enough to fix parts as they break, Ross says. Soon he says there won’t be money to do that

“We’re having to start evaluating what will we not take care of if it goes out,” he says.

But if the Corps’ can’t afford to maintain the entire river system, maybe it shouldn’t, says Steve Ellis. He’s vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“People at their kitchen tables are having to figure out how to tighten their belts and this is an industry that seems to not get it,” he says.

Ellis used to manage the Coast Guard’s inland waterway fleet, so he knows rivers. The Mississippi and Ohio are vital, he says, like interstates. But Ellis compares tiny tributaries not to back roads, but to driveways.

“We’re spending a lot of public dollars maintaining waterways that are for a few private businesses,” he says. “When you get to that point, that’s what they are, they’re driveways.”

Barge companies say rivers big and small need an estimated $8 billion worth of work. They hope to convince Americans that’s a relatively small price for keeping a valuable mode of transportation afloat.

Copyright WPLN and National Public Radio.