Inland and Intracoastal Waterways: Primer and Issues for Congress

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July 7, 2020
Inland and Intracoastal Waterways: Primer and
Issues for Congress

The federal government improves and maintains a system
costing less than $20 million. Also, in 2014, P.L. 113-295
of 12,000 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways with
increased the fuel tax from $0.20 to $0.29 per gallon.
over 200 lock and dam chambers. This system facilitates
the interstate movement of commercial cargo by barge.
Table 1. USACE Inland and Intracoastal Waterways
Commercial navigation on these waterways annually moves
over 500 million tons of commodities, including petroleum
($ in millions)
products, farm inputs (e.g., fertilizer), coal, and grains—
accounting for 4% to 5% of total commercial tonnage
shipped in the United States. High-value cargo in containers
rarely moves on the inland or intracoastal waterways.
$389, of which
Most of the waterways are rivers (e.g., Mississippi River
$330, of which
$116 from IWTF
$131 from IWTF
and its tributaries) or along coasts located in the central and
eastern half of the conterminous United States. Although
these waterways are a relatively small part of the nation’s
freight transportation network, they are an important
transportation route in some regions. Other waterway
stakeholders include recreational boaters (the dominant
Source: CRS, based on 33 U.S.C. §2212 and USACE funding data.
traffic on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway), entities that
Notes: O&M = Operations and Maintenance. MR&T = Mississippi
have special equipment transport needs (e.g., nuclear power
River & Tributaries account; pays for lower Mississippi River Basin
facilities), and municipal water suppliers with water
channel stabilization, which supports barge navigation. Construction
account funds new waterway construction and rehabilitation work.
withdrawals near locks and dams. Policy issues for
Congress include options for paying for inland and
Figure 1. Inland and Intracoastal Waterways Subject
intracoastal waterways work and the effectiveness of
to Federal Commercial Vessel Fuel Tax
investments for sustaining system reliability.
Waterway Appropriations
Each year, Congress appropriates funds for the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers (USACE) to perform construction and
operations and maintenance (O&M) work on 12,000 miles
of the nation’s waterways. For FY2020, Congress
appropriated $1.29 billion for this work, with $1.16 billion
coming from the general fund of the Treasury and $131
million from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) (see
Table 1). Congress typically approves the funding as part
of the discretionary spending provided in an Energy and
Water Development appropriations act but also has on
occasion authorized supplemental funding for waterways.
For more on USACE funding, see CRS In Focus IF11462,

Army Corps of Engineers: FY2021 Appropriations.
Source: CRS based on USACE data and 33 U.S.C. §1804.
Note: Alaska and Hawai have no fuel-taxed waterways.
Construction and the Trust Fund
Since 1986, Congress generally has required that waterway
Since FY2014, Congress has reduced the IWTF-required
construction and major rehabilitation be paid with 50% of
portion of funds for specific projects (e.g., 35% from IWTF
the funds coming from the general fund and 50% from the
and 65% from the general fund for Chickamauga Lock, TN,
IWTF. The IWTF receives collections from a fuel tax on
in FY2020), thereby increasing general fund outlays for
commercial vessels using the 11,000 miles of waterways
waterway improvements by more than $440 million over
designated in law (Figure 1). In 2014, P.L. 113-121 made
the period from FY2014 through FY2020 (Figure 2). For
the general fund the sole source for waterway rehabilitation
FY2020, the Administration estimated inland waterway tax
collections of $114 million and an IWTF balance of $55
million at the end of FY2020 (Figure 2).

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Inland and Intracoastal Waterw ays: Primer and Issues for Congress
System Investment Strategy
period, these locks were closed 37% of the time for planned
Congress has authorized more construction and
maintenance and 63% of the time for unscheduled
rehabilitation work on inland waterways than can be
maintenance. Unscheduled maintenance required less than
accomplished in the near term within current spending
5,000 hours of closure (compared with almost 18,000 hours
baselines. Some waterway projects have had construction
in the 2010-2014 period, see Figure 3). In 2018, in Inland
interrupted in the absence of federal funds; others
Waterways: Actions Needed to Increase Budget
experienced multifold increases in costs above initial
Transparency and Contracting Efficiency, the Government
estimates. The Transportation Research Board’s 2015
Accountability Office (GAO) found that USACE lacked an
report, Funding and Managing the U.S. Inland Waterways
approach for tracking deferred maintenance, which limited
System: What Policy Makers Need to Know, concluded that
USACE’s ability to manage its maintenance efforts and
the system critically needed a plan for maintaining system
communicate maintenance information to Congress.
reliability and performance that ensured efficient use of
limited navigation resources.
Figure 3. Total Unavailable Hours for Seven High-
Traffic Locks
Figure 2. Waterway Construction Funding Trends,

Source: CRS using USACE data on Mississippi River Locks 25, 26,

Source: CRS using USACE data, including Budget Appendices.
27; Il inois Waterway Peoria and LaGrange Locks; and Ohio River
Smithland and Newburgh Locks.
Notes: FY2009 and FY2010 reflect American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-5) funding and its waiver of the
Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) contribution.
Issues for Congress
As Congress considers federal investments in infrastructure,
Pursuant to P.L. 113-121, USACE released a Capital
it may consider a variety of options and alternatives,
Investment Strategy in 2016. The 20-year strategy focuses
including the preferred type and amount of user fees.
on improving priority waterway assets through replacement
Related policy questions may include the following:
or rehabilitation of waterway infrastructure for FY2016-
FY2021 and for FY2022-FY2035. USACE is developing
 Does Congress support the sequencing and relative
the required five-year update and strategic review, and it
spending on new construction and rehabilitation in the
expects to complete the update and review in 2020. It is
Capital Investment Strategy? Does Congress have data
uncertain whether the update will adjust investment
that assess the performance that might be achieved
strategies and priorities to reflect changes in demand for
under alternative investment or contracting strategies?
waterway transport or will alter the evaluation of
investment options, such as whether to build a new lock,
 Do current policies and planning approaches favor new
rehabilitate an existing lock, or increase system
lock infrastructure at the expense of investing in major
rehabilitation or other investments? Could a shift toward
system-based planning alter the preferred alternatives
System Reliability and Maintenance
developed by USACE for inland waterway investments?
A primary concern for many commercial waterway users is
the potential for reduced system reliability. Lock closures
 How has USACE addressed the deferred maintenance
can be disruptive and costly for shippers. For example,
issues raised by GAO? Does Congress support
shippers were affected by a three-week Bonneville lock
USACE’s use of O&M funds (e.g., level of funding
closure on the Columbia River in September 2019.
used on waterways with primarily recreational users)?
USACE has reported that by some measures, the condition
Nicole T. Carter, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
of the system has improved. For example, Figure 3 shows
John Frittelli, Specialist in Transportation Policy
the cumulative unavailable hours for seven of the busiest
locks as measured by tonnage. During the 2015-2019

Inland and Intracoastal Waterw ays: Primer and Issues for Congress

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