Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao For American Waterway Operators Common Issues Council

April 25, 2017

Thank you, Tom [Allegretti].   I am so pleased to be here with all of you, and to see many friends I’ve worked with in the past.

As you have heard, I began my career in government as Deputy Administrator in the Maritime Administration and as Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

So it’s always a pleasure to get back to my roots in transportation.

You know, as I do, that the waterways are—and always have been– important to our country’s economy.  In fact, historians point to the building of canals and locks in the early 19th century as the beginning of the industrial revolution and the start of the modern era.

This industry made it possible to move goods and cargo quickly, efficiently, and at low cost between producers and markets.  It opened up this nation to trade and helped transform America into the economic super power it is today.

Energy efficient water transport continues to be a pivotal part of our nation’s transportation system and helps make America’s economy more competitive.  In 2014 the tugboat, towboat, and barge industry was directly responsible for more than 50,000 jobs, and pumped almost $9 billion to the economy.  Of the domestic freight moved by water, your barge industry hauled:

  • 69 percent of the lumber, stone and ore.
  • 4 percent of petroleum and petroleum products.

And, as we know in Kentucky, approximately 90 percent of the coal shipped on the nation’s waterways was hauled by barge.

Overall, waterways are responsible for more than 270,000 jobs and $30.9 billion in economic activity.

These are great numbers.  But as we head into the future, we need to prepare for the challenging shoals ahead.  The waterways system, like the rest of our transportation infrastructure, is aging and faces increasing congestion.  It also faces the challenge of how to integrate potentially transformative technologies such as drones and autonomous technology.

The time to address these challenges is now.  Infrastructure is the backbone of our nation’s economy, and key to maintaining our competitiveness in a global economy.  Failure to address our country’s infrastructure challenges could cost the economy as much as $3.9 trillion and 2.5 million jobs by 2025.  That’s why the President has made modernization of outdated infrastructure one of his top priorities.

The President’s infrastructure initiative — which will be announced later this year — will include a strategic, targeted program of investment valued at $1 trillion over 10 years. The proposal will cover more than transportation infrastructure — it will include energy, hydro assets and potentially broadband and veterans hospitals, as well.

A key issue, of course, is how to pay for infrastructure without saddling future generations with massive debt. Investors say there is ample capital available, waiting to invest in infrastructure projects. A big problem is the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments. That’s why a critical part of the President’s infrastructure plan will include common-sense regulatory, administrative, organizational, and policy changes that will encourage investment and speed project delivery.

I think everyone can agree that our country can no longer afford to take decades to upgrade a new bridge, highway or waterway.  As you know, most infrastructure projects involve multiple layers of permits, studies and approvals.  But waterways involve more than most.  These include federal, state, and local requirements, as well as Fish and Wildlife, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Transportation.

So here are a few of the items I’ve asked the Department to take a look at, to help identify ways to streamline the regulatory process:

  • Can communication be improved among agencies and departments?
  • Can studies and approvals be submitted concurrently instead of consecutively?
  • Are there new technologies that could be deployed more widely?
  • Are we taking advantage of recent changes in the FAST Act that allow more flexibility in environmental reviews, permitting and project delivery?
  • Are there other permitting processes that could be accelerated?
  • In addition, would switching from input to outcomes-based measurement ensure greater success?


As part of this effort, the department will likely revisit a number of proposed and final rulemakings to further streamline project delivery, and reduce unnecessary administrative burdens.  We will seek your advice in identifying and addressing the unnecessary bottlenecks. So if you have specific recommendations for regulatory improvement, let us hear from you.

In addition, the Department will be taking a close look at our discretionary grant programs. For example, the department could explore ways to direct resources at critical infrastructure that is both nationally significant and in urgent need of repair.  That’s just one option to ensure that scarce federal dollars are targeted more effectively.

Let me also mention some traditional Department programs maritime stakeholders can access to support waterway facilities, especially intermodal ones.  These include:

  • “Discretionary funding” programs, such as FASTLANE grants for highway and multimodal freight improvements,
  • the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) loans for railways,
  • TIFIA loans to finance “inside the gate” surface transportation improvements at ports and terminals.


In closing, let me emphasize—once again– the importance of waterway infrastructure to our country’s competitiveness.  As trade and exports grow, our canals, locks, and other waterway systems must be able to keep pace.  So the Department stands ready to work with you to ensure that the needs of our country’s waterways are addressed in the President’s infrastructure package.

Thank you for inviting me here today.  And thank you for everything you do to grow our economy, and create good jobs for America’s working families.

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