Paducah's unique position within the inland waterways system was highlighted recently when the Marine Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held its spring meeting here.
For three days members of the national board held meetings at the Seamen's Church Institute and Holiday Inn Paducah Riverfront and toured local marine industry facilities as well as Kentucky Lock and the Olmsted Lock and Dam.
The Marine Board serves the nation and its sponsoring federal agencies by providing technical and policy evaluations and advice.
"The board meets twice (spring and fall) a year, and we often hold one of those sessions in Washington, D.C., to some extent because our sponsors, various federal agencies, are located here and it makes it easier for them to participate," according to Ed Comstock, independent naval architect, who serves as board chair.
"However, it's very important for us to be able to get out and have an appreciation for all of the maritime-related parts of the country. Clearly, we wanted to focus this session on the inland waterways and Paducah is a great place to do that."
Over the course of three days, a number of panel discussions were held on topics relating to the inland waterways, including institutional considerations, infrastructure, operational resilience factors, and commercial challenges and opportunities.
"We have members of the board who come from very diverse backgrounds -- from government, industry, academia -- who understand the importance of the inland waterways and why we need to be here (in Paducah) to have those discussions," Comstock said.
While the discussions are important, Comstock said the event also allowed members to "get on board some of the boats and make sure they have a real appreciation for what's happening here and in America."
The need to maintain a trained workforce was among the topics covered in the opening session keynote provided by Rear Adm. Paul F. Thomas, commander, Eighth District, U.S. Coast Guard.
"Our ability as a Coast Guard to remain ready, relevant and responsive to the needs starts with a mission-ready workforce," Thomas said. "We know we have to have a highly adaptive workforce equipped with the latest tools and technologies, training and education and be able to flex the commercial markets and service demands and transformative innovation you guys are driving.
"We also know we have to leverage the total maritime workforce, including the regulated industry, third-party NGO's (non-governmental organization) and academics in order to carry out our mission," he said. "The total maritime workforce is a concept that we need to develop further."
According to Thomas, "The Coast Guard must ensure that the ability to be an honest broker across all stakeholders within the system remains a core competency and key strategy for our future workforce."
The Coast Guard "understands the strategic value of the maritime industry to our nation," he said. "It requires that we continuously focus on 'upping our game' so that we can keep up with this industry and meet the demands of the maritime system."
Bill Miller, executive director of the Paducah-McCracken County Riverport Authority, was among the panelists featured in a discussion about commercial challenges and opportunities on the inland waterways. He has more than 35 years' experience in the maritime industry, which includes ship-line, blue water terminal operations, inland port development and multi-modal operations.
The riverport has achieved Foreign Trade Zone status and is a recipient of the America's Marine Highways Leadership Award from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Current commodities that come through the riverport include aggregates, forest products, agriculture products, energy products, chemicals and resins, plastics, natural rubber for the tire industry, and aluminum and steel products.
While acknowledging some shippers prefer ports around more metropolitan areas, Paducah has a lot of offer, Miller said.
"We're sitting here in a non-congested area. We offer the same services via barge, via ship, right here in Paducah on the Ohio River," he said. "And, we've got all four modes - water, rail and air, along with the trucks."
The riverport will continue to be a viable option particularly because with its container-on-barge emphasis.
There are many ways the region benefits from the increased use of inland waterways, according to Miller.
"It's kind of simple. It increases jobs, reduces highway damage, ships at lower costs and is good for the environment."