Department of Transportation-designated marine highway M-95 needs to be improved to provide for an integrated marine transportation system on the U.S. Atlantic Coast. That is clear to Brad Pickel and a broad group of his maritime partners including the dredging industry. “A viable Marine Highway 95, the Intracoastal Waterway, is an integral part of the overall United States transportation infrastructure,” said Pickel, executive director of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association (AIWA), a non-profit, membership organization dedicated to the health and maintenance of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW). For those not living on the U.S. East Coast, the Interstate-95 roadway goes from Maine to Florida and is a crucial corridor for freight transport. Marine Highway 95 should be doing the same on the water. “The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is under used and underfunded. Our goal is to change that,” Pickel said. “Our mission is to raise awareness and secure adequate funding for the further development of waterborne commerce and recreation on the Intracoastal Waterways of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. This means promoting regular dredging and adequate maintenance to ensure safe, cost-effective navigation.”
Historically, since the early 1800s, the Intracoastal Waterway has been mandated to be kept at depth. Today, Congress has authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the waterway at a 12-foot depth at low tide.
“Easier said than done. Funding is an issue, and it is our job to ensure that Congress understands the importance of the Intracoastal Waterway to U.S. industry and the total transportation picture,” Pickel said. His own background is in water resources management and advocacy from previous employment with a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm, and overseeing coastal management issues for a Florida community for more than 15 years. He is also a board member and executive committee member for the National Waterways Conference Inc.
The part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway/Intracoastal Waterway that Pickel is focused on is the 1,100 miles going from Norfolk, Virginia, to Key West, Florida. One of the nation’s longest water infrastructure areas, it directly connects three of the top ten U.S. ports. In the Fiscal Year 2017 Corps work plan, AIWW received more than $15.6 million for operations and maintenance of everything, but in fact, “based on annual assessment per district, it’s not enough,” Pickel said. “There are competing interests for money allocated to the Corps for waterway improvements, coastal and inland, and they are all worthy. The pie is simply not big enough.”
Inland Waterway Trust Fund
A few top issues for the AIWW are the shoaling in parts of the waterway, which cause unsafe navigation situations. According to Pickel, the maintenance budget for this is inadequate and more federal funds should be made available. For instance, commercial operators pay fuel taxes to the Inland Waterway Trust Fund (IWTF), but none of this comes back to the AIWW. Instead, the trust fund is used to supplement federal funding for major lock rehabilitation and construction projects on other inland waterways. Current legislation does not allow any of these funds to be used for maintenance projects, and since Corps projects on the AIWW require maintenance funds, they are not eligible to receive funds from the IWTF.
AIWA is working to get Congress to address the inequity in this legislation. One positive result of AIWA’s actions has been that the federal government has started to recognize the billions of dollars that all users generate and not to consider commercial traffic as the only justification for dredging. Additional benefits of the waterway include but are not limited to serving as critical harbors of refuge, transportation routes for jet fuel to support national defense, homeland security training areas, and providing safe waterways for Coast Guard station rescues. Incorporating these additional metrics and more into the decision-making process has resulted in important increases in funding.
Reversing the Backlog
All this means that the backlog in dredging to maintain depth and width continues to accumulate, limiting access to the waterways. “We’re playing catch up when it comes to dredging for deep draft vessels and this will only worsen as the major ports like Charleston [South Carolina] and Savannah [Georgia] see increasing traffic as a result of international expansion in the Panama and Suez canals,” Pickel said.
Pickel is not alone in these thoughts. On January 11, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), representing public seaports throughout the nation, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) at a hearing entitled “America’s Water Infrastructure Needs and Challenges.” The message was that the United States will need $66 billion to fund the country’s public ports for navigation infrastructure maintenance, rehabilitation and replacement. This funding issue needs to be, and presumably will be, addressed in the next Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) legislation.
This need for improved marine infrastructure is also confirmed by a recent report from the National Retail Federation, which indicates that 2017 was a record year for containerized imports at America’s biggest retail ports, showing an increase of some 7 percent over 2016.
Trucking Sector Lacks Capacity
Pickel points out another aspect of this increase in trade: trucking capacity. Getting goods to and from ports requires intermodal transportation, which at this time means primarily land transport by truck. “Unfortunately, the trucking industry reports in its American Trucking Association Driver Shortage Analysis in the State of Trucking 2017 that we are facing an increasing shortage in drivers. Truckers are aging, younger drivers are not forthcoming, and the demand for cargo transport is increasing. As our roads clog up and become overfull, industry is recognizing more and more the advantages of waterborne commercial transportation. We’ve always known that maritime transport of goods is more economical and environmentally-sound than road transport. Now it has also become a capacity and workforce issue. Will land-based truck transporters be able to keep pace with the growth in commerce at our ports? We clearly have to find the money to fund the improvements of the AIWW,” Pickel said.
Although the AIWA advocates for funds from Congress, to make up this deficit, Pickel can imagine a future where funding streams increasingly come from not only federal but also non-federal sources, where “states and local governments have a role to play.”
A State Funding Model
The Fiscal Year 2017 budget was a total of $47,879,000, including $32,275,000 in hurricane-recovery supplemental funding and the annual maintenance need, as estimated by the Corps was approximately $50.5 million. Contrast that with information from the Corps, which offered a district-by-district analysis of the anticipated costs to return the waterways to the congressionally authorized dimensions and thus eliminate, or start to eliminate, the backlog in maintenance. Delineated by “responsible district,” the amounts were: Norfolk District, $18,000,000; Wilmington $11,000,000; Charleston $54,000,000; Savannah $22,591,000; and Jacksonville $0. A total of some $106 million.
To Pickel, this presents a clear picture that the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is seriously underfunded. But also an indication that Florida is doing something right and different than other states. And that difference? Florida funds its own maritime projects. The Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) is a special state taxing district for the continued management and maintenance of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) (http://www.aicw.org/). FIND was created by the Florida Legislature in 1927 to be the state and local sponsor for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
“Long ago, Florida established its own budget through property tax assessments to maintain its waterways and the result is that Florida has no backlog and provides about $10 million per annum in state cost-sharing funding to maintain its inland and coastal waterways. For the Intracoastal to function well, we need a long-term plan that offers predictability and reliability toward our industries that want – and in some cases need – to use marine transportation.
“In North Carolina, the state legislature developed a non-federal funding source utilizing boater registration fees and gas tax. This fund is used to cost-share with local and federal governments for maintenance dredging. The benefit to this approach is that it utilizes funds that come from waterway users as its source and thus serves as a user fee,” Pickel said. He believes this approach may be a new way forward for other states. “When we are able to tie the non-federal funding source to waterway users, we can make a better argument on why these funds are necessary for AIWW maintenance,” Pickel said.
As for how things can go wrong, Pickel cites the case of Nucor Steel of Hertford, North Carolina, which for several years received raw iron and transported its domestic steel by barge via the Intracoastal. Suddenly, shoaling in the southern part of the Intracoastal made the waterway too shallow and the company could not take a chance. It had to switch to other modes of transportation to move its products. Once this section of the waterway was dredged, Nucor began utilizing the waterway once again showing a clear return on investment.
Pickel said other national defense issues are concerns as well, including the jet fuel for F-35B planes that is delivered by water on barges from Jacksonville, “a hazardous material that we do not want on our roads.” From an economic perspective, the enormous precast concrete bridge components necessary for the reconstruction of America’s antiquated infrastructure are simply too large for transport by road or rail. Take for instance, the “I Lift NY” super crane that has a lifting arm that is taller than a 30-story building and was transported from the U.S. West Coast through the Panama Canal to New York for the construction of the New Tappan Zee Bridge.
Membership in AIWA
Pickel said, “Our advocacy toward Congress is consistent and persistent, but also limited by resources. AIWA is supported by members’ dues drawn from a broad base of maritime related areas, and we welcome all interested parties.” Supporting organizations include state and local agencies, dredging and construction companies, marinas, yacht clubs and resorts, educational, tourist and waterway publications, tug and barge, shippers and shipyards, engineering, legal services, and consulting groups, real estate, property management and developers, and real estate, property management and developers.
“Dredging is of course key to maintaining and improving the waterways, which is why we are happy that Dredging Contractors of America actively support us and that Devin Carlock of Cottrell Dredging recently joined our board,” Pickel said. At least a dozen dredging companies as well as more than a half-dozen engineering and surveying companies are members.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association is headquartered in Beaufort, South Carolina, and more information can be found at www.atlanticintracoastal.org.