Barge Industry Wants Its Share Of Federal Backing

fromWPLN

In 2008, the railroad industry launched an ad campaign to make its benefits known. Perhaps you've heard trains can move a ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Now the barge industry is hopping on the public relations train, saying "we're like railroads but better." Both are transportation sectors that previously worked hard to stay out of the public eye. But the barge industry, in particular, depends on government funding for river infrastructure — some of which is operating on borrowed time. With locks beginning to fail and the prospect of river slowdowns, barge companies are banding together in a push for help from the government.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The railroad industry has been tooting its own horn over the last three years, letting the world know how efficiently it can move cargo. Well, barge companies are now saying, not so fast. They're trying to get noticed in the infrastructure spending debate, which often stops with the three Rs of transportation - roadways, runways and railways. Well, from member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports on a fourth R - rivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN)

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Sometimes heard, but rarely seen, 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.

DAN MECKLENBORG: We certainly need to work harder to be as visible, and we are trying to do that.

FARMER: Dan Mecklenborg is with Ingram Barge Company, 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.

MECKLENBORG: Our message is, we're even better.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TELEVISION COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: In fact, barges have the best record among rail and truck.

FARMER: The barge industry has begun running TV commercials. Its claims are based on the research of Jim Kruse at the Texas Transportation Institute. He says moving by river is certainly a slow alternative.

JIM KRUSE: 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.

FARMER: Tug boats still burn a lot of fuel - several thousand gallons a day. But they move plenty of cargo, too. Merritt Lane is CEO of Canal Barge Company out of New Orleans, and says with the whole PR push, he started putting the scale in terms people understand.

MERRITT LANE: Instead of talking about a grain barge moving 1,500 tons of wheat, that's 2 and a half million loaves of bread. The gasoline barge, one, can move enough to keep 2,500 automobiles running for a year. That means a little bit more to John Q. Public.

FARMER: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hi, got your starboard wire hooked

(SOUNDBITE OF A TOW BOAT HORN)

FARMER: A tow boat loaded down with coal approaches a lock on Tennessee's winding Cumberland River. Deckhands in yellow rain suits radio instructions to the captain.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Need to come up on the port about six inches.

FARMER: 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 barriers. 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.

DAVID EDGIN: It didn't use to do that.

FARMER: Really?

EDGIN: Really, seriously. To me, it's a sign of the times.

FARMER: 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.

JEFF ROSS: It used to be preventive maintenance. We would fund things in advance of breaking.

FARMER: Jeff Ross, with the Army Corps of Engineers, says its $180 million annual repair budget is only enough to fix parts as they break. Ross says soon, there won't be money to do that.

ROSS: We're having to start evaluating, what will we not take care of if it goes out?

FARMER: But if the Corps can't afford to maintain the entire river system, maybe it shouldn't, says Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STEVE ELLIS: 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.

FARMER: 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.

ELLIS: We're spending a lot of public dollars maintaining waterways that are for a few private businesses. And when you get to that point, that's what they are. They're driveways.

FARMER: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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