Our nation's inland waterways system includes 12,000 miles of commercially navigable channels and some 240 lock sites.
America's “inland marine highways” move commerce to and from 38 states, serve industrial and agricultural centers, and facilitate imports and exports at gateway ports.
By safely moving America’s cargo at the lowest cost, barge transportation plays a vital role not just to our nation’s economy, but in preserving our environment and limiting traffic congestion through our neighborhoods.
In 2017, 578 million tons of waterborne cargo transited America's inland waterways, a volume equal to roughly 14% of all intercity freight and valued at nearly $232 billion. All that, and the least expensive, safest, and lowest carbon footprint.
Our lock and dam infrastructure help barges move the products we use every day — the underpinnings of our economy.
Strengthening Our Economy
America’s economy benefits from the cost efficiencies barge transport provides over transport by truck or rail. More than 60% of the nation’s grain exports move by barge, helping our agricultural exports stay competitive in global markets.
Barge transport also keeps our nation’s vital energy sources flowing, fueling our industrial base and keeping our high-tech economy running. In fact, more than 22% of domestic petroleum and petroleum products and 20% of the coal used in electricity generation transit our inland waterways.
America’s safe, reliable and efficient inland river transportation system has been the envy of the world for more than a century.
With world-wide demand for waterborne commerce expected to more than double by the year 2025, our inland waterways will need infrastructure reinvestment to ensure it will meet the demands of the 21st century to keep America competitive.
Barge transportation also contributes half a million jobs to the U.S. economy, according to a study, “Inland Navigation in the United States: An Evaluation of Economic Impacts and the Potential Effects of Infrastructure Investment”, commissioned by the National Waterways Foundation and executed by the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky.
The study determined:
• If we invest in our inland waterways, we can sustain 541,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in new job income annually;
Entire Upper Mississippi River Basin Benefits from a Healthy River
An analysis of the Upper Mississippi River Basin – Minneapolis to the junction point with the Ohio River, 858 miles downstream – shows that in 2008, about 73.7 million tons of commodities were shipped on the river system out of the basin. Almost 43% of this tonnage consisted of corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains. Most of the grain (31.6 million tons) went to New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas on the Gulf of Mexico. Coal leaving the basin went mostly to 29 power plants in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Florida and West Virginia.
Minnesota Benefits. The Mississippi River System stretches over 195 miles in Minnesota and supports four port areas who’s combined 2016 tonnage was 14.7 million net tons. The River accounts for over 50 percent of Minnesota’s agricultural exports.
Minnesota’s largest river tonnage commodities are agricultural products such as corn, soybeans and wheat. In 2016, Minnesota shipped over 7 million tons of grain down the river. River ports also handle other dry commodities such as fertilizer, cement, sand and gravel, salt, coal, steel and scrap metals for recycling. Liquid products include petroleum, caustic soda, vegetable oils, molasses and anhydrous ammonia.
The Mississippi River Navigation System is maintained by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. They dredge the width and depth of the channel to accommodate 9-foot deep barges, and they operate the 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. The locks are also used by recreational boaters at no cost. The commercial barge operators on the River pay a user fee of 29 cents per gallon of fuel purchased. These dollars are used to pay for half of major federal lock structure improvements.