Jim Ross: Towboat industry finally getting its message out

July 29, 2018

Our group was walking back to the hotel after a dinner meeting. The main topic of discussion had been the completion of the Olmsted Locks and Dam project on the lower Ohio River later this year.

As we walked, I had to ask Marty Hettel, vice president of government affairs for American Commercial Barge Line, one of the largest towboat companies on the inland river system, about something that has bothered me for years. The $3 billion Olmsted project has taken more than 30 years to complete. It’s been plagued by problems with design, engineering and construction, but also by funding.

Companies that ship coal, grain and other products by barge say longstanding problems at this part of the river system, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, has cost them millions of dollars because of an old dam that is prone to major breakdowns. Olmsted’s completion will, among other things, strengthen America’s position in export markets, these companies say.

The industry sells very little to the general public, so its leadership has had little incentive to work with media organizations. For the most part, companies have had very little contact with regional and local media. Most of the media work had been done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s not easy to convince people to spend millions of dollars on your needs when their first response is, “Who are you and why should I care?”

Hettel agreed with that sentiment. But things are getting better, and the Waterways Council, the industry group that organized this past week’s meeting where we met, has done a good job in getting the industry’s message out, he said.

There are other things that have made the river industry more visible to people along the rivers and beyond. One is the number of riverfront parks that have been built in recent years. Floodwalls and neglect separated people from the rivers. Now things are different. Go to Harris Riverfront Park, the model for many in this part of the river, on a warm evening and count the people watching the river go by.

The other is the combination of digital photography and social media. Check out how many people are posting pictures of towboats and barges on Facebook. Hettel asked if I was aware of RiverWorks Discovery’s Facebook page and if I knew how many boat pictures it posts each day. I jokingly said about seven thousand. Seriously, often it’s in the dozens, mainly through sharing what other people have posted.

An industry that has lived a hermit-like existence as far as the media and the public are concerned has a chance to sell its story now. As several people noted at the conference in Paducah, with Olmsted’s completion there will be funding opportunities for other projects in a system crying out for an upgrade.

Some locks and dams on the Monongahela, Tennessee and Illinois rivers need rehabilitation or replacement to keep them in service. At least one on the upper Ohio will need major work in the next decade or so to prevent it from failing. These are projects that cost in the hundreds of millions.

Companies - at least the larger ones - that use the rivers are starting to seize these new opportunities to get their message out. They’ve had their reasons to avoid public awareness, true. But getting political support is easier if you have the public behind you.

Jim Ross is a Huntington resident and former reporter and editor for The Herald-Dispatch.

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