To the nation's steadily growing barge industry, the key problem of the 1980s is not one of ship supply but of river capacity. The question is whether or not America's intricate system of inalnd waterways can be mended and improved to provide smooth, uninterrupted transit for the increased traffic expected.
The barges themselves are relatively quick and easy to produce as demand increases. Many of them can easily shift from carrying one commodity to another.
But the industry worries that the transportation bottlenecks produced by out-of-date and inadequate locks along the riverways -- often causing the equivalent of a downtown traffic jam which lasts days rather than hours -- will continue, triggering higher and less competitive shipping rates.
Currently, the barge industry carries some 12 percent of the nation's freight -- everything from oil and coal to grain and steel. One barge can carry as much as 15 railroad cars of 57 trucks. Shipping by barge generally takes longer than rail or truck. However, it has also tended to be cheaper and more fuel efficient per ton mile.
It is that competitive price edge and general progress which the industry now feels are in danger, both from the standpoint of transit problems and from the imposition of a first-time barge user tax on diesel fuel beginning in October. While that tax starts at a modest 4 cents a gallon, it will rise to 10 cents by 1985. Just how much further Congress presses the barge industry for full recovery of federal expenses on waterways may depend on the outcome of an economic impact probe by the Departments of Commerce and Transportation expected in the fall of 1981.
Barge industry spokesmen insist it is the railroads that are behind both the lock and dam repari, construction delays, and the new barge user tax.
"The party line of the railroads for the last 100 years has been that if they can just obstruct and kill off the competition, all the tonnage will move by rail -- it's a pretty limited view," says David Wright, president of the National MArine Service in St. Louis.
Many in the water transport business took heart recently when US Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt joined them by pointing a finger of blame at the railroads. Chiding them for "wasting" their time by "hassling" the barge industry, he said, "The railroads want to make sure they've taxed their competitors out."
While approving the concept of a user tax for barges, Secretary Goldschmidt stressed that the railroads were originally "given" their land and are making a "fortune" off it.
the railroads continually argue that they must pay to maintain their own rights of way while water transport enjoys a free ride at the expense of the American taxpayer.
The American Waterways Operators Inc. (AWO), the major trade assocaition for barge and tow operators and for those who build and repair such ships, counters that the federal subsidy to railroads over the years, via such sources as land grant earnings, railroad retirement benefits, and Amtrak aid, amounts to a tidy one-fourth as much on water navigation and maintenance projects.
But the point remains debatable depending one one's definition of subsidy. A Congressional Budget Office study a few years ago, for instance, claimed that for every dollar of revenue earned by the water transport industry and the railroads, each received 40 cents and 3 cents on the dollar respectively in federal subsidies.
Many transportation experts view all this hip-shooting and the search for equalized treatment from Washington as an unnecessary diversion whcih blocks rail-barge cooperative efforts which could do a lot to help both industries grow. So far such efforts have been the exception rather than the rule, but some industry officials see a change ahead.
"The climate is better for such cooperation now than it's ever been," says Ross Feltz, a spokesman for Dravo Mechling of Pittsburgh, which hauls steel and liquids. "The sheer realities of efficiency and the economies involved may very well make shippers start demanding it."
In the meantive, what the barge industry wants most is a speedup in repair and reconstruction work on locks and dams at several key points in the nation's 25,000-mile inland waterway system.
Worst for most barge and tow operators is the No. 26 dam and set of locks at Alton, Ill., through which all north and south traffic on the Mississippi River must pass. The main lock there is only 600 feet long, about half the length of the other locks in the system. The result is that the usual flotillas of barges -- often one tow boat pushes a clump of 15 or more cabled together -- must be broken up into two or more groups to get through. The wait in that process has been as much as three of four days.
"It can cost you as much as $400 an hour and you're not making any revenue while you wait," says American Commercial Barge Lines vice-president Robert Kilroy.
The situation at Alton is expected to get worse before it gets better. The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with maintaining the nation's waterways, broke ground last spring for reconstruction of one lock. But the project is expected to take eight to ten years to complete. The railroads and such environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the Izaak Walton League had successfully postponed the start for years by a series of legal challenges.
"We're asking the corps if anything can be done to accelerate the project -- we're doing everything we possibly can," insists Anthony Kucera, the aWO president, who admists nonetheless that Mississippi River delays may be as bad until the late 1980s as they ahve been recently.
For most shippers it is too costly to transfer the cargo to land to skirt lock delays. But the Staley Company of Decatur, Ill., a manufacturer of grain products, started a new plan in January. It ships some of its southbound products by rail to a point south rathern than north of the dam site and loads them directly onto barges. The Illinois Central Gulf Railroad is paid according to how speedily it gets to the Mississippi's edge.
"We're still bargin as much as in the past bu the location has changed," observes Reeder Miller, Staley's director of corporate transportation.
But there is little question that for all shippers the Alton kind of delay is a costly one. A recent analysis by Minnesota's Cargill, one of the nation's largest grain firms and owner of Cargo Carriers Inc., which is primarily a grain hauler, notes that the barge industry carries one-third of the grain destined for export, but has not shared in the 25 percent growth of such exports over the last three or four years.
"There isn't any way to get more grain ghrough the (Alton) bottleneck," says Cargill spokesman Stuart Baird. He says that a round trip between St. Louis and the Twin Cities now takes 20 to 22 days, or almost twice as long as three or four years ago.
"The river has been the most efficient means of carrying builk commodities. But now that efficiency is falling off . . . this is a business where one-eighth of a recent a bushel makes all the difference."
Al Alton, barge and tow operators would like to see reconstruction of two locks, instead of one, as added security against expected dition, there are at least half a dozen other sites where AWO is eager to see more repair and reconstruction action. But most of them are still under discussion and study -- if that.
One Senate source who closely monitors the progress on such projects says the willingness to shoulder a fair share of the cost.
"Lock' 26 would be far closer to completion if the barge industry had recognizd that the idea of a user charge has value," he says. "Until they decide to repay the taxpayer, like the gas tax and the highways, you're going to see guerrilla warfare over every project that comes along."