THE BOTTOM LINE: States may benefit by water rebirth
Since roadways and bridges already are backed up and in immediate need of repair and expansion, the movement of more freight by alternative means -- rail and water -- could reduce pressure to pour money into highway projects we might not need and certainly can't afford.
The first measure would free up an estimated $800 million per year to dredge and otherwise maintain harbors. That's especially important in the Great Lakes area, where declining lake levels are making it nearly impossible for fully loaded commercial vessels and even larger pleasure craft to make use of the harbors.
The second measure -- the selective elimination of the cargo tax -- is aimed at simply reducing traffic bottlenecks and congestion that slow the movement of freight. If there are delays that are measured in hours at a key bridge, for example, a barge service could be set up to move trucks across the waterway.
Through the two proposals, the marine industry hopes to be prepared for the inevitable transportation problems we will face as the economy continues to expand. The full use of all of our transportation resources -- including water -- could help the country move products and raw materials faster, more efficiently, more safely and with less pollution.
Whether policymakers choose to proactively deal with problems or not, a rebirth of water borne transportation is likely at hand.
And Indiana as well as Michigan would be well poised to take advantage. In fact, it's already a big business that supports many industries.
Iron ore, coal, limestone, grain, steel products, cement, petroleum products and machinery are among the many cargoes that are moved in and out of ports in Michigan and support some 27,000 jobs, according the Great Lakes marine industry. Roughly the same mix support an estimated 48,000 in Indiana.
And that's only part of the infrastructure in Indiana, which also has busy Ohio River ports in Jeffersonville and Mount Vernon. All told, Indiana handles about 70 million tons of cargo by water each year -- surprisingly placing it 14th in the nation in terms of tonnage moved, says Jody Peacock, vice president of the Ports of Indiana.
Think about it. Products and raw materials from our region can reach the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean via waterway. That could give us a natural advantage should leaders truly adopt a multimodal mindset when it comes to the movement of goods and raw materials.
Though the ports in Indiana are busy, traffic could be doubled tomorrow without any additional investment, Peacock says. The same could likely be said in Michigan as long as harbors are dredged.
Peacock says the materials moving out of Burns Harbor in Porter County are relatively consistent from year to year, largely supporting the industries that developed near the lakeshore to take advantage of water transport. In recent years, the harbor is also getting used more frequently to handle specialty cargo -- huge generators, windmill components and other project components.
The movement of goods by water eliminates the need for caravans and special permits for oversized loads. The growth in such freight also might indicate that some of the incoming cargo is from areas of the world -- for example, Europe -- that have more of a multimodal mindset.
"There are several key factors driving us to the conclusion that waterborne transportation needs to be part of a strategic solution," says Peacock. "Trucking has congestion and driver shortages and wear and tear on the roadways. There are also air quality and safety concerns. As those problems become more prevalent, we need to find long-term solutions."
Those in the marine industry believe the solution is obvious.
It's a point that obviously must be considered.
Ed Semmler's The Bottom Line column appears on Sundays. If you have a comment or suggestion, contact him at email@example.com or at 574-235-6466.