Lake Carrier's Association President Makes Plea for Infrastructure Investments

Testifying in front of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development (House Committee on Appropriations), the President of the Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA), Jim Weakley, highlighted an ongoing crisis for Great Lakes dry-bulk shippers. Weakley told House subcommittee members on February 16 that, “Unfortunately, a lack of investment in our navigation infrastructure significantly reduces the efficiency of the system.” On Tuesday, Weakley also told MarEx that “the $200 million backlog to get navigational channels to authorized depths was preventing lake carriers from taking full advantage of our vessels’ efficiencies because of the lack of dredging for maintaining our Great Lakes.”

Weakley’s testimony relied heavily on LCA depictions of lost cargo capacity created by the light-loading of countless vessels at Great Lakes ports. At Waukegan, IL alone, says Weakley, the lack of dredging is causing vessels to lose almost seven feet of draft and associated cargo carriage capacity. Furthermore, at the port of Saginaw, MI, 60 inches of draft has been lost and the grounding of two vessels last summer caused the temporary closure of the port until the US Army Corps of Engineers could perform emergency dredging. The turning basin there hasn’t been dredged since 1983. Beyond this, 3 out of 4 LCA vessel voyages in the past five years resulted in the vessel departing from the berth carrying less than a full load.

Weakley asserted that the loss of just one inch of draft for the entirety of the 63 LCA coalition fleet translates into a cumulative loss of 8,000 tons per trip. Unspoken in all of this is the loss of efficiency for domestic cargo transit. Cargo which cannot be moved into US ports on the water must be transported over the highways or rails, or worse: sent to Canadian ports. America’s Marine Highway, MARAD’s new name for short-sea shipping, will probably never achieve the economies of scale envisioned by US Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton until Great Lakes ports are dredged and restored to standard depths.

Weakley told lawmakers that there were several ways to get the job done, with the appropriation of more money into navigation infrastructure being the obvious first step. A source for those funds, he said, was the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). The HMTF, Weakley explained, is specifically designed to maintain deep draft ports through a tax paid by shippers. The theoretical surplus of $3.5 billion in the fund, said Weakley, suggests that the money is there, but needs to be released. On Tuesday, Weakley remarked, “We hope the ’08 budget will contain the additional $20 to $25 million needed to start plugging away at the backlog. We need to take back the Great Lakes.”

Editor’s Note: James H.I. Weakley is President of Lake Carriers’ Association and an officer of Great Lakes Maritime Task Force. The Great Lakes Maritime Task Force represents 63 companies and organizations involved in all aspects of Great Lakes shipping and was founded in 1992 to promote increased waterborne commerce and related industries.

Lake Carriers’ Association President James Weakley’s testimony can be found at their WEB site at: http://www.lcaships.com