Your Jan. 9-10 series "Rivers of No Return" [front page] on the nation's inland waterway system and the "balancing act" between navigation and "competing" uses is laced with bias and cynicism and as a result misses the real story: America's waterways have silently shaped the nation's commercial and cultural history and, if properly developed and adequately maintained, will be critical to our country's leadership in the global economy of the 21st century.

The articles reveal a bias against waterways development by focusing solely on waterborne tonnage. In reality, this is only one measure of a waterway's worth. Other measures include jobs and income generated, an expanded tax base, taxes paid and exports and imports handled.

The articles, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The value of the inland waterway system, which moves 1.1 billion tons of commerce annually, should be beyond dispute. It would take 40 million trucks or 11 million rail cars to move the same volume of commodities. Although they are slow, barges are a safe and fuel-efficient mode that moves about one-eighth of all intercity freight. The tugboat, towboat and barge industry, which has operations along the nation's 25,194 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways, contributes $5 billion a year to the nation's economy and moves 15 percent of the nation's freight for less than 2 percent of the nation's total freight bill.

The articles play down the critical role of the inland waterways and their connection to world trade. Overall, the inland waterways move more than 60 percent of U.S. grain exports. The low transportation cost of moving that grain by river barge to seaports is a primary factor in keeping U.S. farm products competitive in international markets. U.S. coal export levels also depend on the economics of moving the coal from the mines to the markets.

Obviously, some waterways will be "underperformers" when compared with others and when the sole criterion is cargo tonnage. Nevertheless, Congress will continue to strive for efficient, cost-effective waterways. If we walk away from our water transportation infrastructure, we will pay the price at home and abroad in the global marketplace.

--Bud Shuster

The writer, a Republican

representative from

Pennsylvania, is chairman

of the House Committee

on Transportation and

Infrastructure.