Waterway Facts

Waterway Facts 2017-01-23T10:21:07+00:00

Value of Inland and Coastal Waterways to the Nation


Here are some facts that depict the contribution of the US port and inland waterways system to the national economy:

Value of cargo

  • 2.3 billion tons of domestic and foreign commerce moved annually.
  • 630 million tons of cargo, with a value of $73 billion, move on the inland waterways system.
  • Cargo moved by the inland waterways system yields an average transportation savings of $10.67 per ton over the cost of shipping by alternative means, translating into an annual savings of over $7 billion to the consumer.
  • The value of goods exchanged between states using ports and waterways exceeds $100 billion annually.
  • The value of foreign trade handled at ports in 1998 was $664 billion.
  • Over 60% of nation’s grain exports and over 95% of soybean exports move by barge.
  • For every $1 spent on improving the navigation infrastructure, the US Gross Domestic Product increases by more than $3.
  • Crude oil and petroleum products accounted for over 40% of all short tons shipped on the inland waterways system in 1998.
  • In Alabama,
    • $7.5 billion of cargo is moved annually on domestic water transportation
    • In 1996, shipment by water was 28.8 million tons, valued at $4.8 billion.
    • The value of domestic products shipped into the state by water in 1996 is estimated at $2.6 billion.
    • The major commodity shipped on inland waterways is coal, 33% of total.

Scope of ports and waterways

  • There are over 25,000 miles of inland waterways
  • Inland and intracoastal waterways serve 38 states.
  • 95% of the nation’s foreign commerce flow through deepwater ports.
  • The waterways industry pays fuel taxes of 20 cents/gal, more than any other mode of transportation.
  • The replacement value of projects making up the inland and intracoastal waterways is over $125 billion.
  • The port industry in the US employs approximately 1.6 million people and contribute $15.4 billion in federal taxes and $5.9 billion in state and local taxes.
  • 61% of all US imports and 63% of all US exports flow through a port located in a southern state.
  • More than 460,000 jobs in the South depend on the region’s inland waterways system.
  • In Alabama
    • Industries using water transportation provide over 60,000 jobs.
    • The inland waterways industry itself generates 2,800 jobs, providing $18 million in state and Federal payroll taxes.
    • The economic impact of the Alabama State Docks in Mobile statewide is over $3 billion.
    • The Mobile Port ranks 8th nationally in export tonnage and 16th in import.

Flood Control

  • Flood protection programs prevent an average of $20 billion in damages per year, saving $6 for every $1 spent.
  • Since 1928, Corps flood control programs have prevented nearly $226 billion in damages.
  • The Corps of Engineers has built 400 lakes and reservoirs in the US for flood control purposes.

Hydroelectric Power

  • Hydroelectric power generated by dams produce enough electricity to supply 4.64 million homes with power and $533 million to the US Treasury.
  • 20% of the coal used as fuel to produce the nation’s electricity is moved on the inland waterways system.
  • In Alabama, the average annual energy produced by US Army Corps of Engineers dams is enough to supply 128,000 homes with electricity, valued at nearly $90 million.

Water Supply

  • 9.5 million acre-feet of water storage from 116 lakes and reservoirs in the US supply water for thousands of cities, towns, and industries.


  • In Alabama, over 4 million party visits to Corps recreation sites contribute over $365 million in direct and indirect sales, resulting in 8,000 jobs.

Advantages of Inland Barge Transportation 

(Much of the material presented here is based on the US Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration brochure, “Environmental Advantages of Inland Barge Transportation.”)

Inland barges carry approximately 15 percent of the nation’s freight at the lowest unit cost while offering an environmentally sound alternative to truck and rail transportation.

Shipping by barge

…is more energy efficient.

cargocapThe measure of energy efficiency in transportation is the amount of energy expended to move a certain weight of load over a given distance, expressed as BTUs required to move one ton one mile (a ton-mile). Water transport expends 433 BTU per ton-mile versus 696 for rail. It is much more efficient to move cargo through water than over land. Supporting this conclusion are the statistical data reflecting the relative distance each mode of transportation can carry one ton of cargo for every gallon of fuel burned.

Truck – 59 miles      Train – 202 miles      Barge – 514 miles
These figures show that shallow draft water transportation is almost nine times more economical, thus more efficient, than trucks and over two and one half times more efficient than rail.

Key to this efficiency is the ability of barges to carry large loads of bulk materials up to five times their own weight. The cargo capacity of a barge is 15 times that of one rail car and 60 times greater that one semi-trailer truck.

Cargo Capacities

Mode Tons Bushels Gallons
Barge 1500 52,500 453,600
Railcar 100 3,500 30,240
Truck 25 875 7,560

To move the same amount of cargo transported by a standard tow (15 barges) would require a freight train 2.75 miles long or a line of 870 trucks stretching almost 35 miles. On the lower Mississippi, one 10,000 horsepower towboat can push 40 barges, the equivalent of 600 railcars or more than 2200 trucks. If the cargo moved on the inland waterways systems each year had to be moved by rail, it would take 6.3 million cars, or on the road, 25.2 million trucks. Think about the additional traffic and associated air pollution such congestion would bring to our already crowded land systems.

Any proposal to shift the transportation of customary barge commodities to either rail or truck would be inconsistent with the nation’s energy conservation efforts, much less be economically unsound. The costs of such a move in environmental effects must be factored into any evaluation of such a move.

…serves to dampen rates of competitive modes of transportation.

Where barge transportation is available, rates of either truck or rail, particularly rail, tend to be lower.
The corollary is that where barge transportation is not available, rail rates tend to be higher. Shippers are aware of this economic reality as they constantly compare transportation costs in an attempt to reduce operating expenses. Lower costs to the shipper translates into lower costs for the consumer.

…is safer.

An important measure of environmental responsibility is the safety of the public. Statistics show that barge transportation has fewer accidents, fatalities, and injuries than truck or rail in every measure. The following table is extracted from “Inland Waterways as Vital National Infrastructure: Refuting ‘Corporate Welfare’ Attacks,” page 25, by Dr. C. Jake Haulk of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, published in 1998.

Death and Injury Rate by Mode
Per billion ton-miles

Mode Deaths Injuries
Barge Tows* 0.01 0.09
Trucks** 0.84 NA
Railroads** 1.15 21.77

* Barge data from National Transportation Statistics Annual Report 1993, pp 32-33
** Truck and rail data from US Statistical Abstract 1993, pp 610, 621, 630. Truck deaths includes only truck occupants. Other victims not counted.

Shallow draft barges operate primarily in areas away from the general population, thus are less exposed to urban areas than truck or rail. The inland waterway system has fewer crossing junctures, minimizing the potential of collision between tows or vehicles carrying people. As a result, the number and impact of waterway incidents are low when compared to truck or rail.

Truck and rail spills occur more often than barge spills. Design features of barges, such as double-hulls and navigational aids, help reduce the frequency of accidents. All new inland tank barges carrying liquid cargoes now have an inner and outer hull. The United States Coast Guard regulates the design and construction of these vessels and equipment as well as qualifications of the personnel manning them. The Coast Guard inspects the vessels annually to ensure compliance.

…causes little congestion

Congestion on our highways is a major safety and environmental headache. Accidents, increased energy consumption, damage to the environment, increased commuting time, increased driver tension, all have a major impact on our daily lives. In contrast, water transport seldom causes congestion problems that represent a hazard to the public. In truth, the inland waterways system is under utilized.

…produces little noise or air pollution

Some of the most pervasive and intrusive sources of noise and air pollution are transportation systems. The noise of road traffic, particularly trucks, can be almost debilitating. Compare the decibels of a passing truck with that of a barge sliding silently through the water, and the difference is overwhelming. Towboats generally operate away from shore with the sound of their engines muffled below the water line.

Pollutants expelled into the air by the tremendous number of trucks on the road are a major hazard to the environment. Road traffic is by far the greatest source of those pollutants.

Pounds of Emission per Ton-mile
EPA, Emission Control Lab

Mode Hydrocarbons Carbon Monoxide Nitrogen Oxide
Towboat 0.0009 0.0020 0.0053
Train 0.0046 0.0064 0.0183
Truck 0.0063 0.0190 0.1017

(Extracted from “Inland Waterways as Vital National Infrastructure: Refuting “Corporate Welfare” Attacks” by Dr. C. Jake Haulk, Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, p. 24.)

coal_cargoIn contrast, barges cause far less air pollution than trucks, and less, or comparable amounts, than rail. Exhaust emissions from barges cumulatively produce fewer emissions per ton-mile of freight carried than either rail or truck. Waterway operations are generally away from population centers so the pollutants barges emit are less intrusive than the other modes of transportation.

…has relatively small effects on land and community

Barges move along isolated waterways generally adhering to natural river channels. Thus, they require minimal modification to the land for support, unlike road or rail, and so generally are less likely to compete with non-transportation uses for that land. Highways and railroad corridors can command large land areas, whereas barges require only some connections and waterside terminals. Barges do not impose unwelcome traffic patterns or congestion upon the community as do trains or trucks. Neither does the barge disturb to any great degree the serenity of a community as tows are less frequent than rail or truck because of greater carrying capacities.

…produces multiple benefits

A navigation waterway also provides ancillary benefits, such as recreation, flood control, water supply, irrigation, and electrical power production, contributing greatly to the quality of life in all waterside communities.

The waterways industry has long had concerns about developing and maintaining our inland waterways in an environmentally responsible way. The businesses that make up the barge and towing industry are dedicated to operating in a way to reduce to the absolute minimum any negative effects on the environment. They also realize that development of those waterways can be compatible with the protection of the ecological health of the river basins in which they operate.