Inland Waterways' role in Economic Prosperity

By: Rep. James Comer (KY-01)

March 29, 2018

For decades, the city of Paducah, Kentucky has served as a major hub of the inland waterways system due to its strategic location at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. To highlight the importance of the river industry to our region, I invited Representatives Jason Smith of Missouri and David Kustoff of Tennessee to join me in Paducah for a meeting with industry experts. We had a productive discussion on the economic benefits of our inland waterways system and explored ways to modernize and maintain this critical resource.

Our unique waterways system gives a major competitive advantage to American businesses and consumers by facilitating the transport of goods in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Kentucky has 2,000 miles of navigable waterways – the highest total of inland navigable waterways of any state in the continental United States – and moves around 100 million tons of cargo per year. Because of this vast expanse of navigable channels, we can transport commodities like coal, petroleum, grains and other agricultural products – like many of those grown in the First District – in a safe, reliable and cost-efficient way.

Kentucky’s agricultural successes are very much dependent on the continued functioning of our inland waterways. During our panel discussion, we heard from agriculture industry leaders about the importance of the inland waterways system to famers who rely on commercial barges to move their products to market. They described how delays caused by our aging locks and dams can drive up the cost of transporting their crops, and ultimately reduce profits. When materials are able to move more efficiently and at a lower cost, our agricultural industry benefits and farmers are more competitive around the world.

Investing in our inland waterways infrastructure supports billions of dollars of economic activity each year. Nationwide, our inland waterways move more than $229 billion worth of cargo annually. Unfortunately, the reality is that much of the infrastructure supporting this economic engine is over half-a-century old. Our levees need to be reinforced for flood protection, locks and dams that support navigation and hydropower generation need to be modernized, and there are countless other projects necessary to transit, flood control and commerce that are waiting for funding.

To help advance President Trump’s fast-moving, pro-growth agenda, our infrastructure capabilities must be able to keep pace. One challenge that our government is working to address is the burdensome permitting process that delays projects for years, with little-to-no benefit. We also heard from representatives from the river industry about the need to change the way we fund federal projects to ensure infrastructure dollars go toward projects that will generate the most benefit for the American people and our economy overall.

Our waterways infrastructure is an important – oftentimes unrecognized – aspect of what makes America great. It provides jobs, safe and reliable transportation, and boosts our economy. Representatives Smith, Kustoff and myself have each seen how funding deficiencies and project delays harm our waterways infrastructure and the industries that rely on them. A strong and secure inland waterways system means a future of economic success for Kentucky, and for our nation. I look forward to continuing my work to support this vital infrastructure priority and to draw more attention to this critical national resource.


Rep. James Comer is a United States Congressman for the First Congressional District, which spans from south central Kentucky to the river counties of far western Kentucky. Contact him with any questions or concerns in his Washington D.C. office at (202) 225-3115, in the Tompkinsville Office at (270) 487-9509, in the Paducah Office at (270) 408-1865, or schedule an appointment in the Madisonville Office by calling (270) 487-9509.