Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the people who operate our multi-modal transportation system have kept our country going, keeping households and businesses supplied and the economy moving in the face of public health and logistical challenges. Our nation’s experience with the pandemic has underscored that the integrity and security of America’s domestic supply chain is everything we must control it, and we must safeguard its efficiency. We cannot afford unreliability either within the supply chain or the infrastructure that makes safe and efficient transport possible.
That reality is vitally important as it applies to maritime transportation. Maritime transportation has been integral to our nation’s economy and identity since even before its founding, and the American maritime industry today, in addition to being a substantial and consequential economic force, is also a safety leader and indispensable security partner.
The domestic maritime industry of which the tugboat, towboat, and barge sector is the largest part supports 650,000 American jobs, contributes over $154 billion to GDP annually, and moves nearly a billion tons annually of the commodities that power our economy. The industry is both safe and green barge transportation is the safest mode of freight transportation for the public, and a single dry cargo barge moves as much cargo as 16 rail cars or 70 tractor trailers.
The industry also plays an important role in the security of our nation. Vessel crews serve as “eyes and ears” in support of the U.S. Coast Guard’s homeland security mission; provide first-on-scene rescue assistance to vessels in distress; and support our military by transporting defense readiness cargo and providing ship-assist services to guide aircraft carriers and during the pandemic, Navy hospital ships into American ports safely.
The scope of the industry’s contributions to our nation makes it clear: If the maritime component of the domestic supply chain is compromised, the effects will be felt across the entire system. Two policy priorities are especially critical to ensuring that domestic maritime and by extension, our supply chain as a whole remains secure and reliable.
First, it is vital to uphold the Jones Act, the foundational law that requires vessels moving cargo between U.S. ports to be owned, crewed, and built by Americans. Loss of the Jones Act would not only mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of family-wage jobs, but it would also make the Coast Guard’s homeland security mission more complex and daunting by allowing foreign vessels and mariners to navigate on domestic waters and would sharply reduce the number of American mariners that our military can draw on to support sealift operations.
And now that we’ve experienced a year of COVID and its resulting economic strains, we have a better sense for the importance of the Jones Act to our supply chain security. How much worse would things have been if we’d had to rely on foreign vessels to move cargo on our domestic waters and faced the potential for disrupted domestic maritime commerce during the pandemic? Thanks to the Jones Act, we didn’t have to find out.
The Jones Act is also the reason why we haven’t had to find out what happens when a geostrategic competitor like China gains a foothold in our domestic maritime sector. Such an effort would certainly be consistent with the Belt-and-Road Initiative, through which China is attempting to link itself economically to other nations in Europe and Asia through the entrenchment of massive infrastructure investments. As Admiral Craig Faller, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, noted in January, China is pursuing similar activity in the Western Hemisphere: “Why would China want to achieve a deep-water seaport off El Salvador, Jamaica, perhaps the Dominican Republic?…Their long term interest is economic dominance, and they’ll do what it takes.”
The other key policy priority in safeguarding our domestic supply chain is robust investment in waterways infrastructure. While “infrastructure” often calls to mind the roads, bridges, tunnels, runways, and tracks more visible to Americans’ everyday commutes, maritime commerce also relies on infrastructure locks and dams to help towboats and barges navigate varying water depth on our rivers; coastal ports that need to be capable of accommodating increasingly large ships; dredgers to ensure that ports are maintained at the necessary depth and that elevated sediment, or shoaling, that occurs naturally on rivers is promptly removed so that vessels can move safely. Underinvestment in ports and waterways infrastructure leads to safety risks for mariners and bottlenecks on the water that affect American shippers and the entire economy.
Congress recognized and acted to address this need with the enactment of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) 2020, which provides an improved cost-share mechanism to accelerate completion of badly needed lock and dam infrastructure projects and enables the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deploy dredges to trouble spots on the rivers faster. WRDA was an important down payment on maintaining and enhancing our nation’s competitiveness, and we urge Congress and the Administration to work together to pass a large-scale, bipartisan infrastructure package that fully funds the $7 billion backlog of authorized inland waterways projects and invests in our coastal port infrastructure to double down on this investment in our national prosperity.
We cannot hope to effectively navigate the next economic crisis or exercise global leadership without a strong, secure domestic maritime sector. Preserving the Jones Act and investing in waterways infrastructure must be top of mind in building and maintaining a resilient supply chain.
Jennifer A. Carpenter is the president and CEO of American Waterways Operators, which advocates for the U.S. tugboat, towboat, and barge industry by promoting its long-term economic soundness and enhancing its ability to provide safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible transportation.