A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

James McCarvilleJames McCarville is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as a leader in transportation.

I am pleased to accept this award on behalf of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission (PPC) and the PPC's Wireless Waterway Committee, and the many other individuals and entities who came together because we truly believed the adage that says “a rising tide lifts all ships.”

This Wireless Waterway project is the result of thousands of volunteer hours by members of the Commission and an equal amount by those in the towing industry, academia, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the federal Committee on Marine Transportation (CMTS), to all of whom we are extremely grateful.

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission got involved in transportation technology because we saw a gap. While the towing industry was improving its own part of the system, and the Corps theirs, no one was capturing the efficiencies possible in the interaction between the two. We therefore hosted listening sessions throughout the river system, identified industry perceived problems and consulted with Carnegie Mellon University in the hopes of finding tech solutions already invented for other modes. At that point we began getting serious in our discussion with USACE and began comparing notes with our European counterparts on technology advances they had already started. We gave birth to the first “international benchmarking conference of best inland river technology practices” called “SmartRivers,” which is now an international conference held every other year around the world hosted by PIANC, the Permanent International Association of Navigation Congresses.

Our first homegrown technical solution, “SmartLock,” demonstrated how a towboat moving at a couple of miles per hour could navigate a narrow lock chamber entrance in low visibility (a feat airlines perform hundreds of times faster). Students at Carnegie Mellon designed for us a computer-aided virtual locking system. Not only was it an excellent solution, but they also donated the patent rights to the PPC. The only problem was, for the system to work most efficiently for industry, it needed a network so it could be duplicated at all or many of the locks. This was a challenge since seventy percent of the inland waterway system is in rural areas, in low-lying valleys like Pittsburgh, or in low-income neighborhoods not well served by the Internet. Since USACE was already budgetarily hard-pressed to maintain the very valuable lock and dam infrastructure and no third party would build a network for a single application, we went back to the drawing board.

Our next project with Carnegie Mellon students was a communications-architecture on the waterways to know who was talking to whom. Not only did the students inventory all of the conversation paths between company headquarters, towboats, USACE, US Coast Guard, National Weather Service, and the IRS, but they demonstrated a simplified design to eliminate multiple entries, improve accuracy, and reduce expensive data verification. It was great progress, but it still needed a network.

It was then that Rex Woodward, Chairman of our Wireless Waterway Committee, introduced us to Tom Dauer, a Pittsburgh native loaded with communications experience and with a vision of integrating the newest communications technologies into layered services linking towboats, terminals, truckers, first responders, government regulators, and government service providers into an integrated, safe, secure system. Merging Tom’s tech expertise, Rex’s business insight, and the PPC contacts, we had a game plan. Because the PPC was considered a trusted third party, we linked the best expertise from each of these partners, all of whom saw the benefit of having a common solution.

With the help of some Port Security Grants and PPC matching funds, we built the first leg of this system. It includes (a) the basic Network System Infrastructure (NSI), which is scalable and expandable; and (b) an Interoperability Test Bed, which will keep us “state of the art.” Testing begins on June 7th, and you are all invited. We expect the project to generate its own revenues for maintenance and some build out. More importantly, it will bring transparency to an otherwise invisible system. It will improve security at the port and lead to better scheduling for towboats, terminals, trains, and trucks, as well as creating a better quality of life for people who work the towboats, people who often spend weeks away from their families.

If we look at any major infrastructure project, whether the Erie Canal, the interstate highway system, even NASA, we see that it was a new technology that solved old problems. We hope to see the same here. We expect these efficiencies will not only attract new cargoes to the rivers, but that the increased cargo will help justify revitalization of the lock and dam infrastructure.  

Going forward, to capture these opportunities, the Port of Pittsburgh Commission has created an affiliate Non-Profit Corporation, Pittsburgh Port Technology, Inc., to better leverage the innovative resources of communities, corporations, foundations, and states along our rivers. As a friend of mine put it: “Better technology leads to better data which leads to better decision-making.” The Port of Pittsburgh Commission is pleased to be part of this process and honored to be named a ‘White House Champion of Change.’

James R. McCarville is the Executive Director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission (PPC), a Commission of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

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