Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tug Boats, Part 2: The Economics of Tugs

American tugs and towboats move a huge amount of freight every day, both on the inland and coastal waterways, and to Alaska and Hawaii.

Rivers are a major highway for transporting goods. The American Waterways Operators estimates that the nearly 4,000 tug and towboats on the inland waterways transports 20-percent of the nation's coal and 60-percent of its grain each year in the more than 28,000 barges in active service. New England gets most of its heating oil, and the inland Pacific Northwest most of its diesel fuel by barge. The AWO says all this traffic contributes $5 billion a year to the US economy.

Virtually all goods not flown into southeast Alaska come by barge, and a large percentage of goods bound for south central Alaska (the Anchorage area) and the Aleutians go the same way (just try finding some of your favorite items in the grocery store in Juneau if the barge is running a day or two late). Hawaii and many smaller Pacific islands rely on tugs and barges dispatched from the the US mainland.

Tug and barge operators compete directly with trucking companies and railroads. A typical barge can carry 3500 tons of cargo, or about one million gallons of fuel. The same amount of cargo requires 35 rail cars or 120 semitrailers. In other words, a towboat and four barges transports enough goods to replace semis stretched over 20 miles of highway. Tidewater Barge Lines says they can move one ton of cargo 514 miles on one gallon of fuel, compared to 202 miles for a rail car or 59 miles for a semi truck. They claim the reduced fuel usage results in lower greenhouse gas emissions as well when compared to other modes of transport.

See the American Waterways Operators site for more on the economic impact of the tug and towboat industry.

For more comparing barge transport versus other modes, see the National Waterways Foundation study here.

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