Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.


Managing U.S. Waterways


Since the founding of the United States there has been a national interest in safe and efficient maritime transportation. Ports and waterways are part of a national infrastructure that supports international and domestic trade, commerce, and recreation. Recognizing this essential function, the federal government has assumed responsibility for the development, maintenance, and safe operation of shipping channels. Environmental protection is a more recent, but equally important, federal concern. Ports and waterways also are part of a global transportation system that must accommodate diverse fleets, so there is a national interest in ensuring that all vessels adhere to minimum international standards for “rules of the road,” language, radio frequencies, and other aspects of maritime protocol.

At the practical level, however, the federal role in U.S. port and waterways management is diffuse mainly because responsibility for maritime safety is divided among several agencies. The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for maritime law enforcement, port safety and security, and search and rescue, for example, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for maintaining accurate nautical charts, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) surveys and maintains federal navigation channels. Another reason is the absence of a national structure governing ports. As a result, local and state governments and the private sector have taken responsibility for port management and development, which has led to many variations in local measures that promote safety and efficiency. For these and other reasons, ensuring effective management of waterways is a unique challenge in the United States.

Navigation information systems—including buoys and lights, charts, hydrographic and environmental data, and communications and positioning systems—are among the measures available for enhancing maritime safety and efficiency. Implementation of accurate, reliable systems on a national scale can be difficult, however. To set the stage for an examination of issues affecting implementation, this chapter outlines the main considerations for managing waterways, including the importance of waterborne commerce, current problems with the safety and efficiency of maritime transportation, the value of navigation information systems, and stakeholder interests in waterways management.

Significance of Waterborne Commerce

International trade has been a major factor in the dramatic worldwide economic growth of the second half of the twentieth century. The impact has been particularly significant in the United States, which now leads the world in the value of imports and exports (World Trade Organization, 1996). The nation's continued economic vitality depends on growing trade, both domestic and international, but especially the latter. The value of U.S. commodity imports and exports was almost $1.2 trillion in 1994 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995). Commodity exports rose from 5 percent of the gross domestic product in 1984 to 7.5 percent in 1994 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995).

Ports and waterways are essential conduits for trade, handling almost all U.S. overseas trade by weight and about half by value (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995). In 1993, waterborne transportation of all commodities totalled more than 2 billion metric tons, about half domestic and half international trade. Ports are particularly important in foreign trade. Projected increases in foreign trade will place new demands on the nation's waterways transportation system, which includes 145 ports (including inland ports), which handled more than 1 million metric tons of cargo each in 1993 (U.S. Department of Transportation, 1995). Figure 1-1 indicates the trends in U.S. oceanborne trade, and Figure 1-2 shows the cargo tonnage handled by different groups of U.S. ports. These data underscore the importance of U.S. ports and waterways and point to a corresponding need to ensure their safety and efficiency.

Shipments of oil and petroleum products constitute a major component of U.S. trade. The nation imports more

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

FIGURE 1-1 U.S. oceanborne trade (1995–2005). U.S. oceanborne foreign trade grew from 674 millon long tons to 897 millon long tons between 1985 and 1994, or at an average annual rate of 3.7 percent. Source: World Sea Trade Service Review.

than half the oil it consumes, and imports are growing steadily (American Petroleum Institute, 1996). The contiguous 48 states receive about 1.4 million metric tons of crude oil and petroleum products per day by water, primarily from foreign sources but also from Alaska. There is also significant domestic trade in other products, such as vehicle and aviation fuels. The prevalence of these commodities in and around U.S. coasts poses a risk of accident-related spills, a persistent environmental, economic, and social concern.

The more-than-fourfold increase in U.S. seaborne international trade since World War II has been carried largely by foreign-flag vessels, as the domestic fleet has dwindled

FIGURE 1-2 Waterborne commerce of the United States. Includes all cargo moved on all types of vessels except for passengers and vehicles moved by ferries. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

(U.S. General Accounting Office, 1995). In 1994, about 98 percent of U.S. foreign trade by tanker and 85 percent by cargo liner was carried by foreign-flag vessels (U.S. Department of Transportation, 1995). Other changes in the fleet calling at U.S. ports have taken place as well. To accommodate expanding trade, oceangoing ships have grown considerably in size, complexity, and speed. Tankers have grown from about 16,000 deadweight tons (dwt) to 500,000 dwt, and dry-bulk carriers from less than 20,000 dwt to as much as 300,000 dwt. Container ships have also been introduced. Initially holding about 100 containers, container ships now carry as many as 6,000 20-foot-equivalent units, and even larger vessels are planned. Container ships permit rapid loading and off-loading of cargo, reducing in-port time from days or weeks to a matter of hours. In addition, because of the value of the cargo they carry, container ships put a premium on fast turnaround.

Many other specialized vessels have evolved for specific cargoes or trades, particularly the petrochemical industry, which has expanded significantly since World War II. The largest petrochemical complex in the world is located along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. Parcel tankers of 20,000 to 50,000 dwt that carry chemicals and liquified petroleum gas carriers, are extremely sophisticated vessels, with many tanks and special cargo handling systems. Some of the petroleum and chemical cargoes carried by these vessels (as well as barges and container vessels) can be complex and highly toxic to humans and animals, so spills pose a grave risk.

The increase in seaborne trade and its growing importance to U.S. prosperity, as well as the demands posed by

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

changes in the world fleets, require that maritime transportation be highly efficient. Waterways management is especially important given the pace of modernization at U.S. ports (discussed in the following section). Heavy traffic and a multiplicity of vessel types in some ports, 1 as well as the hazardous nature of much of the cargo, demands heightened attention to maritime safety. The costs of shipping accidents—particularly accidents with human casualties and cargo spills—are higher than ever. Thus, there is a compelling national interest for ensuring the safety and efficiency of maritime transportation.

Problems with Port Safety and Efficiency

Port and waterways management is a particular challenge in the United States not only because there is no centralized national control, but also because of the lengthy coastline, many large rivers, and the volume and diversity of shipping. In much of Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East, where large single ports operated by national port authorities are common, new harbors have been constructed for the largest ships, and modern ports are considered instruments for achieving international economic gains. In the United States, the emphasis has been on upgrading the land-side infrastructure of old ports. The lack of deep-water ports has been a particular problem for the petroleum trade. Many U.S. refineries and petrochemical complexes are located inland and can be reached only by lengthy river passages, dredged channels, or canals. Although the idea of opening new deep-water ports was studied in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only one deep-water terminal for crude oil was developed, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. Accordingly, increasingly large tankers are being crowded into existing U.S. ports and waterways, sharing the congested waters with a large volume of tug-barge traffic and, in many areas, a growing number of recreational boaters. Figure 1-3 shows the mix and number of deep-draft oceangoing vessels calling at major U.S. ports. Table 1-1 indicates the different types of terminals located at U.S. ports on all coasts.

Some aging infrastructure of U.S. ports may compromise safety or efficiency in a number of ways. For example, because some ports cannot accommodate the deepest-draft ships, there is often a need for offshore lightering, the transfer of petroleum from large ships to smaller vessels that can proceed into shallow harbors or waterways. Lightering of crude oil takes place in the lower Delaware Bay, the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, and San Francisco Bay (National Research

FIGURE 1-3 Annual number of port calls by vessel type for all U.S. ports in 1994 (excluding tugs and barges and vessels of less than 1,000 gross tons). Source: MARAD.

Council, 1991). Cargo handling always involves the risk of spillage, and lightering is no exception. Lightering also increases the number of trips required to deliver cargo to ports and thus increases traffic, which could also increase the risk of accidents.

Congestion also may affect safety and efficiency at some ports, because competition for intermodal trade and shifts in trading patterns have led to the concentration of cargo at fewer terminals (National Research Council 1993b). Port upgrades may be delayed because of declining support from state and local governments and a variety of other reasons (U.S. Maritime Administration, 1994).

Most of the deep-ocean commercial traffic in U.S. waters is foreign flag traffic. In 1992, 24,000 vessels of 1,000 gross tons or more were in operation worldwide; only 603 were registered in the United States, and approximately one-third of these were government owned (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994). Table 1-2 shows U.S. oceanborne trade by ship

TABLE 1-1 U.S. Seaport Terminals by Berth Type and Coastal Region, a1993


Berth Total

Atlantic b


Pacific c

Great Lakes

Berth Type






General Cargo






Dry Bulk






Liquid Bulk
























aIncludes commercial cargo handling facilities with a minimum depth alongside 25 feet for coastal ports and 18 feet for Great Lakes ports.

b Includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

c Includes Hawaii and Alaska.

Source: MARAD.


Except for the oil trade, vessel movements in U.S. waters are poorly documented (Research and Special Projects Administration, 1995), so it is not possible to acquire sufficient reliable data to demonstrate recent trends in vessel traffic. However, 1994 statistics for New York Harbor indicate the traffic situation at one busy port: 163,664 vessel movements, including 89,075 by ferries; 52,626 by tugs/tows; 6,945 by cargo vessels; 12,545 by tankers; 1,708 public vessels; 45 vessels containing hazardous materials; and 6,726 vessel with “special handling” needs (U.S. Coast Guard, 1995b).

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

TABLE 1-2 U.S.-Flag Shares of U.S. Oceanborne Trade in Millions of Long Tons for Selected Years, 1970–1994





1994 a












Percent U.S.-Flag
















Percent U.S.-Flag
















Percent U.S.-Flag
















Percent U.S.-Flag





a Preliminary figures.
In 1994, 7206 vessels, or 29 percent of the world merchant fleet, called at U.S. ports. In terms of capacity, these ships represented 44 percent of the dead weight tonnage in the world fleet. In terms of capacity, about 4 percent of the world dry bulk fleet, 48 percent of the full container ship fleet, and 40 percent of the tanker fleet called at U.S. ports in 1994. Of the 231 cruise vessels in the international fleet, 98 regularly served the United States.

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

type and flag from 1970 through 1994. A large number of foreign-flag vessels operate in U.S. waters, and the United States has limited control over equipment and standards on these vessels. This fact, as well as potential language difficulties, highlights the need for effective port-based communications and marine traffic management.

Although assessing the safety and efficiency of U.S. ports is difficult, sufficient data are available for making qualitative generalizations. Maritime safety is a continuing concern, despite recent advances. In the past several decades, the operational safety of ships, measured in terms of marine casualties, has improved overall (National Research Council, 1994a, and references therein). Only 1/500th of 1 percent of the total amount of oil moving through U.S. waters is spilled; even so, the 9,000 tons (on average) of crude oil and petroleum products spilled annually in U.S. waters is associated with significant environmental, economic, and social costs (National Research Council, 1991). The oil spilled after a 1993 tanker collision in Tampa Bay, for example, resulted in damage and clean-up costs of more than $100 million by 1996 (Glisson, 1996).

Many safety initiatives have been launched in the United States and internationally in recent years, including a phasedin requirement for double hulls on oil tankers and targeted, comprehensive inspections of potential high-risk vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, there have been many changes in the culture of the shipping industry, led by the recent adoption of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code 2 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). A specialized agency of the United Nations, the IMO is the leading international forum for cooperation on issues affecting maritime safety. The actual effects of these changes are not yet known. 3

In addition to the changes in shipping traffic outlined earlier, a number of factors are converging to create persistent risks. Human error, a cause of 80 percent of maritime accidents (U.S. Coast Guard, 1995a), remains a difficult problem to overcome. Concerns have been expressed over the aging of commercial fleets and persistent, anecdotal reports of substandard foreign-flag ships and crews (National Research Council, 1994a, and references therein).

Another factor more specific to certain U.S. ports is difficulty with voice radio communications. Mariners report frequent interference on bridge-to-bridge communications channels, particularly in geographically complex, heavily traveled areas, such as the lower Mississippi River (Duffy, 1995). Communications are often impeded by unauthorized or inappropriate use of marine radio frequencies; overloading is common when communications are most needed, during adverse weather or in heavy traffic (National Research Council, 1994a). High-powered transmissions from paging companies have also been cited as a cause of the problem (Duffy, 1995).

Outdated nautical charts and poor data on environmental conditions (i.e., weather, tides, and currents) also create significant risks. U.S. coastal waters have never been completely surveyed, and about 60 percent of the nautical charts prepared by NOAA are based on pre-1940s data collected with obsolete technologies (National Research Council, 1994a). Furthermore, as shown in Box 1-1 , NOAA has a growing backlog of requests for new and updated charts that it cannot satisfy under present policies and budgetary constraints (National Research Council, 1994b). Tidal, current, and water-depth predictions, based on information dating as far back as the turn of the century, are equally unreliable, (National Ocean Service, 1995). Box 1-1 summarizes the most urgent needs in U.S. port areas. The adequacy of charts and/or tide or current tables was an issue in the groundings of the Queen Elizabeth 2 off Massachusetts in 1992 and the American Trader tank ship off southern California in 1990 (National Research Council, 1994a; National Ocean Service, 1995). Damages resulting from these accidents have been reported at $45 million and $30 million, respectively, and litigation is pending (National Ocean Service, 1995). The


The ISM Code lays the foundation for a new operational and cultural framework for ship management, requiring that policies and actions be consistent within an organization and focusing attention on human factors.


Accident data maintained by the Coast Guard, principally through the marine safety information system, are of limited utility for broad-scale analyses. The value of the data is compromised by several factors, including the integrity of the locally maintained accident information and inaccurate details (Research and Special Projects Administration, 1995).

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

BOX 1-1

Deficiencies in Hydrographic Surveys of Approaches to and Areas Surrounding U.S. Ports

Except for federally maintained channels, many nautical charts are out of date because the necessary hydrographic surveys have not been conducted for years. Only a small portion of U.S. waters have been surveyed with advanced techniques that can provide accurate, full coverage of the sea bottom. The majority of soundings shown on U.S. nautical charts are from pre-1940 lead-line surveys that can provide only spot depths at each point. According to NOAA, an estimated 43,000 square nautical miles of harbor and harbor approaches need to be resurveyed. Areas around eight of the nation's top ten ports need extensive resurveying.


Square Miles of Surveys Needed for Ports and Approaches

Houston/Galveston, Texas


Delaware Bay and River


Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas


New York/New Jersey


Lower Mississippi, Louisiana


Tampa, Florida


Long Beach/Los Angeles, California


Norfolk/Newport News, Virginia


Source: NOAA, 1996.

National Transportation Safety Board held hearings in March 1996 concerning a vessel that ran aground off Nantucket. The investigation has not been completed, but there is some evidence that the cause may have been reliance on faulty data.

Maritime transportation efficiency varies greatly because of the diversity among U.S. ports in terms of governing and funding structures, local shipping patterns, the services provided, and geography and environmental conditions. In general, however, the information infrastructure at U.S. ports lags behind the most sophisticated ports in Europe and Asia (National Research Council, 1993b). Some U.S. shipping terminals have the most modern cargo-handling equipment; but harbors are often too shallow to accommodate the deepest-draft ships (National Research Council, 1993b; Vulovic, 1995). The expansion and maintenance of channels is also a problem; budgetary constraints and difficulties in handling contaminated sediments have slowed the pace of dredging (Maritime Administration, 1994; National Research Council, in press).

In sum, a combination of factors threatens the safety and efficiency of maritime transportation, and the situation demands renewed attention. Navigation information systems are among the tools available for enhancing waterways management. A number of navigation support technologies are available, and many have been deployed successfully (National Research Council, 1994a).

Navigation Information Systems/Vessel Traffic Services

Enhancements in navigation information systems can contribute significantly to the safety and efficiency of maritime transportation. These systems include basic navigation aids, such as buoys and lights, nautical charts, weather data and forecasts, and communications and positioning systems.

Chief among the technological advances proposed for improving safety and efficiency are vessel traffic services (VTS), the principal form of traffic control and regulation used in maritime commerce. A VTS is an interactive, shore-based waterways management and communications system, usually augmented with surveillance equipment (principally radar) for acquiring data on the position of vessels and traffic flow. A VTS provides information and other services in an effort to improve navigation safety and efficiency. The types and levels of service provided by VTS systems vary, as do the characteristics of operating authorities. At the IMO level, the term VTS is generally understood to refer to systems implemented by a nationally recognized governing authority. Similar systems not sanctioned in this manner by the IMO are referred to (both generally and in this report) by other terms, such as “VTS-like” systems.

Substantial investments have been made in VTS in major ports around the world, both to enhance the economic efficiency and competitive advantages of specific ports and to benefit safety and the environment (Koburger, 1986). In Rotterdam, for example, an elaborate VTS tracks vessels and provides a running commentary on traffic. The service area extends from 60 kilometers (km) offshore to 40 km inland. The area is divided into three regions, each with its own traffic center, subdivided into 12 sectors, each sector with its own operator and communications channel. Vessels receive guidance from shore by highly trained VTS operators, who must have completed a national training program, which includes simulator training. The system has 29 radars, automated vessel tracking and multiple displays, closed-circuit television, VHF radio direction finding (VHF-RDF) systems, a water depth data system, and integrated radio communications and voice logging. Planned improvements include an electronic notification system for ships carrying dangerous cargoes and an automated system for water depth management. The $180 million VTS was developed to replace a radar chain that was 30 years old. The need for the system

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

was justified on the basis of safety and the environmental risks posed by an increase in shipping, an increase in ship size, and an increase in amount of dangerous goods. The operating cost of the system is recovered through fees charged to each vessel.

VTS and VTS-like systems are in operation in about 20 U.S. ports and waterways (National Research Council, 1994a). The form, scope, and effectiveness of these systems vary, and debate is ongoing about the types of information and assistance they should provide.

In the past two decades, the Coast Guard has installed and operated VTS systems in major U.S. ports and paid for them with federal funding. However, some major ports, such as New Orleans, are not served by a VTS system. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-380) requires that the Coast Guard identify ports that would benefit from VTS and prioritize them based on cost-benefit analyses. After an extensive study (Maio et al., 1991), the Coast Guard has planned a major acquisition program, VTS-2000, under which new or improved systems would be installed in as many as 17 ports. The Coast Guard expects that the VTS systems will help prevent collisions and groundings (Anderson, 1996).

The advisability of this plan, and how it should be funded, is of significant national concern. Under the present plan, federal funding would cover $260 to $310 million for development and installation of the complete system and another $42 million in annual operating costs in FY 2010 (Anderson, 1996). The decisions concerning VTS-2000 will affect myriad and diverse stakeholders in port and waterways management. The present study is an attempt to evaluate current and alternative approaches to VTS-2000 by addressing the role of advanced information systems in the promotion of safe and efficient maritime commerce. A first step in the assessment is identification of the many stakeholders and their interests in safe and efficient maritime transportation.


The efficiency and safety of U.S. ports and waterways are interdisciplinary concerns that draw attention from a number of agencies at all levels of government and throughout the private sector. Stakeholders in the safe and effective management of U.S. ports and waterways have diverse characteristics and interests. Commercial stakeholders, for example, range from giant manufacturing companies that move cargo through port authority public terminals to small rural elevator owners who accumulate grain for transshipment on inland waterways to export elevators. Virtually all citizens benefit in some way from safe, efficient ports and waterways.

Stakeholders can be grouped into four broad categories: federal, commercial, state/local, and public interest groups. Their interests are outlined here to demonstrate the myriad important needs that must be satisfied.

Federal Agencies

The federal government has a vital national interest in ensuring that the United States remains competitive in the world economy. Safe, efficient modern methods of maritime cargo transportation are necessary to the nation's economic policy of free trade, which is carried out primarily through its ports. Recognizing the importance of trade, the federal budget includes billions of dollars for promoting trade and for developing and maintaining transportation infrastructure (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994).

Many federal agencies are affected by or involved in the operation of U.S. ports and waterways. These agencies can be generally described as port users, port supporters, and port regulators. The port regulators can be further grouped by specific missions.

Port Users

The U.S. military is an important port user. The U.S. Department of Defense spends more than $60 billion a year on procurement (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994), and many of the goods purchased must be transported through ports and waterways to reach their destinations. In addition, the armed services ship millions of tons of household goods each year when personnel are moved back and forth between military installations in the United States and abroad. The military also depends on ports in missions that call for the rapid deployment of huge amounts of equipment.

The Persian Gulf War in 1991 illustrated how national security can hinge on efficient port operations. At its peak, the six-month project to move millions of tons of equipment and munitions from the United States to the Middle East involved more than 300 vessels. The temporary U.S. cargo fleet used for this purpose included military ships and chartered commercial vessels. All told, 95 percent of the cargo transported during Desert Shield (the buildup) and Desert Storm (the military action) was delivered to the Middle East by ship (Thomchick, 1993).

Another notable group of port users at the federal level is comprised of agencies that administer foreign economic and military aid programs. In 1991, the U.S. provided $16 billion in assistance to other countries, much of it in the form of food, medical supplies, and military equipment (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994). A significant portion of this aid was transported by ship.

Port Supporters

Port supporters include agencies responsible for maintaining navigation safety through channel maintenance, charting the provision of information about environmental conditions, the enforcement of navigation and safety rules, and the provision of port development services. The Coast Guard, NOAA, USACE, and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) are the primary agencies in this category. These

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

agencies would benefit from technological improvements in tracking and recording ship movements, weather conditions, or changes in navigable waterways.

Port Regulators

Port regulators are agencies with oversight missions regarding commercial navigation. These agencies develop and administer regulations with which ports must comply. The interests of port regulators primarily involve environmental protection, law enforcement and national security, and foreign relations.

Environmental protection is a high priority in the United States, and its proponents are active at every level of government. At the federal level, the United States spent more than $22 billion on natural resource and environmental projects in 1994 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994). This interest is promoted primarily by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA, although USACE and the Coast Guard are responsible for certain projects and for enforcing certain regulations to protect water resources.

The U.S. Customs Service is charged with collecting taxes on imported goods and enforcing quota and trade restrictions, as well as other activities, such as drug interdiction. Approximately 70 percent of customs duty revenues on imports are collected at ports—an estimated $12 billion in receipts in FY 1992 (American Association of Port Authorities, 1994).

Commercial Stakeholders

Commercial concerns nationwide have a stake in the efficient flow of commodities through U.S. ports. Low cost, efficient water transportation is one factor that enables U.S. producers and manufacturers to compete in world markets. In today's business environment, most manufacturers operate on just-in-time schedules that demand efficient and timely handling, whether ports are used to receive imported parts, export component parts, or export finished products. Technologies that enhance waterways management benefit commercial stakeholders in several ways, averting not only the direct costs associated with accidents but also the indirect costs of channel blockages or navigation delays that impede shipping efficiency. 4 The primary commercial interests can be grouped on the basis of the commodities being shipped.

Petroleum and petrochemical products are, by far, the most prevalent commodities (by volume) moving through U.S. ports. In 1993, the combined value of imports and exports of these commodities totaled more than $114 billion (Bureau of the Census, 1994). These products account for most waterborne liquid bulk tonnage, much of which is loaded or discharged at private facilities. Petroleum production, refining, and marketing are among the most competitive industries worldwide. For many U.S. producers and refiners, most notably along the Gulf Coast, efficient transportation is the critical factor in maintaining their competitive advantage.

Coal is an important U.S. export, totaling more than $3 billion in 1993 (American Association of Port Authorities, 1994). Coal producers and their suppliers are major commercial stakeholders in maritime transportation. Efficient handling of this high-volume, yet low-value-per-ton commodity is necessary for American producers to compete with producers in other countries, such as South Africa, Australia, and Venezuela.

Farmers, even as far inland as Kansas, are also heavily dependent on ports. Two-thirds of all U.S. wheat and wheat flour, one-third of soybean and rice, and almost two-fifths of U.S. cotton are shipped through U.S. ports to foreign markets (American Association of Port Authorities, 1994). In 1993, the United States exported nearly $42 billion worth of agricultural products, with grain and grain products accounting for 28 percent of these exports (Bureau of the Census, 1994). Reduced transportation costs for these industries can translate directly into increased returns for farmers, who also depend on ports for efficient handling of imported machinery and fertilizers. The companies that gather, process, and move commodities to ports also have a stake in the maritime transportation system.

Producers of steel and aluminum also depend on ports and efficient water transportation. Much of the ore used in the production of these two basic commodities is imported. In 1993, some $3 billion worth of metal ores were imported into the United States (Bureau of the Census, 1994). Producers of finished steel products also depend on imports of semi-finished materials when domestic production is down. Because of the weight of the ore and the size of semifinished steel pieces, barges are used to transport these items from coastal ports to inland destinations. Thus, efficient port and waterway operations are doubly important to these companies.

The commercial sector also encompasses myriad service industries that depend on ports. Importers, exporters, public and private terminals, stevedores, longshore workers, railroads, truck lines, barge companies, and pipeline operators, as well as their employees and suppliers, all benefit from the smooth operation of ports. If the intermodal receipt, transfer, and shipment of goods can proceed in a coordinated manner, the competitiveness of U.S. companies is enhanced. Intermodal cooperation, often stimulated by ports, can open markets and provide new manufacturing opportunities.

Finally, the commercial sector also includes vessel operators. In the deep-draft category, most vessels calling at


Maritime accidents can close a port or shipping channel for days or even weeks at a total cost of many millions of dollars. In 1992, for example, a barge sank in the Houston Ship Channel completely blocking the channel for 24 hours. Two-way traffic was not restored for almost two weeks; some 200 ships were delayed; and the added operational costs averaged $20,000 per vessel per day (National Research Council, 1994c).

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

U.S. ports are foreign flag vessels. Operators of shallowdraft vessels are more likely to be U.S. corporations. In many ports, there are more shallow-draft vessel movements than deep-draft arrivals. In 1993, nearly 5,200 towing vessels, 26,800 dry cargo barges, and 4,000 tank barges traveled through U.S. waterways (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1993), most of them stopping at coastal ports while on canal or river voyages.

Many commercial vessels carry passengers, heightening the need for attention to safety. Ferries and specialty vessels, such as casino ships and sport fishing boats, number in the thousands and may carry several hundred passengers at once (National Research Council, 1995). The cruise industry is a growing maritime presence, with single ships carrying as many as 3,300 persons and many of the leading cruise markets in or adjacent to U.S. waters (National Research Council, 1995).

State and Local Stakeholders

Ports and waterways stimulate economic development, which in turn benefits state and local economies. In 1994, U.S. port activities contributed more than $780 billion to the gross domestic product. Port activities also resulted in tax payments of $56 billion to state and local governments (Maritime Administration, 1994). Successful ports attract a wide variety of support businesses, such as container manufacturers, stevedore companies, ship chandlers, customhouse brokers, and freight forwarders. These support groups, in turn, become stakeholders in the continued success of the port.

The U.S. public port industry consists of more than 110 nonfederal agencies, including port authorities; special purpose navigation districts; bi-state authorities; and departments of state, county, and municipal governments (American Association of Port Authorities, 1994). These agencies were established by state governments to develop, manage, and promote waterborne commerce and act as catalysts for economic growth. Their decisions affect almost all other stakeholders in their respective ports. Successful port agencies constantly work to provide local stakeholders with a competitive edge.

States also have an interest in effective port administration and operation. In addition to collecting taxes from businesses that depend on port activity, states have a political interest in promoting safety and sound environmental practices.

Public and Community Stakeholders

Throughout U.S. history, efficient water transportation has stimulated economic growth. It is no accident that the top ports in terms of tonnage are located in densely populated areas. New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia are cases in point. History has proven that population density and economic prosperity are often brought about by the presence of a port.

One of the most important public benefits generated by ports is job creation. In 1992, more than 1.5 million people were employed directly by the port industry; another 14 million were employed by port users and suppliers. That same year, port activities generated $523 billion in personal income (Maritime Administration, 1994). These workers have a significant stake in the port industry.

Ports and waterways also provide significant aesthetic and recreational opportunities, which are highly valued by the public today. These activities are fostered by environmental protection, one of the most significant public issues shaping the economic and political landscape today. In response to public demands, federal and state governments have imposed numerous environmental laws and regulations in recent years. Logistics and transportation professionals, as well as architects and operators of ports and waterways, must comply with a growing catalog of environmental restrictions in order to survive. Technological advances that reduce the incidence of oil spills are in keeping with the public interest in protecting the environment.

Public reaction to major ship accidents and resulting catastrophic oil spills have been the driving force behind major government initiatives to develop new or improved VTS systems in U.S. ports. In 1971, two tankers collided in the fog near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco spilling about 3,000 tons of heavy oil and setting in motion legislation that led to the VTS systems now installed in San Francisco, Puget Sound, New York, and Houston. A subsequent report stated that the overriding cause of the accident was the lack of Coast Guard authority to control traffic, a situation that allowed vessels to forgo communications with traffic advisers (Office of Technology Assessment, 1975). Instead of counting on radar and radio technologies, the ships used only foghorns, which went unheard (Office of Technology Assessment, 1975).

The years following that accident were marked by many maritime safety initiatives, including improvements in navigation information technologies and the deployment of VTS systems. But in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground outside the Prince William Sound VTS surveillance area and spilled 35,000 tons of Alaskan crude oil, the resulting damage and clean-up costs totaled several billion dollars (Office of Technology Assessment, 1990) and provoked enduring public distrust of assurances about tanker safety. This accident and its aftermath led to the congressional legislation that, in turn, resulted in the VTS-2000 program.

The public outcry over maritime safety tends to run in cycles, reaching a peak just after major accidents and then appearing to diminish with time. However, with major oil spills occurring around the world and spills reported regularly in the United States, the safety of U.S. ports and waterways is likely to remain a continuing concern.

Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.


The United States has an enduring national interest in the safety and efficiency of ports and waterways; but waterways management is uniquely challenging in the United States. Port and waterways management responsibilities are divided among federal, state, and local agencies, and a variety of problems with safety and efficiency have been identified. Although safety and efficiency problems have not created an immediate crisis, long-term trends indicate that growing concerns are justified and need to be addressed.

One way to enhance maritime safety and efficiency is to deploy new or improved navigation information systems, such as VTS. The Coast Guard has proposed VTS-2000 as a means of improving waterways management in 17 ports and adjacent waterways. Successful implementation of initiatives like the VTS-2000 requires that they be cost effective and designed to meet current needs, including the interests of multiple and diverse stakeholders. Stakeholders in maritime transportation may be as varied as the population of the United States, but they share four interests pertinent to the present study:

  • ensuring the safety of lives and cargo, avoiding environmental damage, reducing costs of accidents, and promoting law enforcement and national security

  • moving vessels and cargo in and out of ports efficiently under all conditions

  • ensuring the smooth flow of goods from one mode of transport to another to save time and reduce costs

  • fostering economic growth, creating jobs and prosperity in the process

These objectives can be reached if leadership, vision, and state-of-the-art technology, such as VTS, are combined. These elements have already been brought together in world-class ports in Europe and the Far East. The institutions that manage and operate U.S. ports now have an opportunity to follow a similar path in promoting economic growth, maritime safety, and environmental protection. In the next chapter, existing and alternative plans for navigation information systems in general, and VTS-2000 in particular are examined, in the context of national, regional, and port-specific needs.


Anderson, J.H. 1996 . Testimony of John H. Anderson, Jr., director, Transportation Issues, Resources, Community, and Economic Development Division of the General Accounting Office, before the Subcommittee on Transportation of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., March 7, 1996 .

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Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.

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Suggested Citation: "1 MANAGING U.S. WATERWAYS." National Research Council. Vessel Navigation and Traffic Services for Safe and Efficient Ports and Waterways: Interim Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1996.
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