The view that the navigable waters of the United States should be toll free originated in the colonial period of U.S. history, and became explicitly stated federal policy in the 1884 Rivers and Harbors Act (Ashton et al.). At that time public expenditures for waterway improvements were small and the freight transportation industry was dominated by railroads. Therefore, public policy promoted water transportation as an inexpensive means of encouraging competition for the railroads.
Since the early years of this century public expenditures for improvements of the waterways have risen while water, motor, air, and pipeline transportation have become effective competitors for the railroads. The conditions which justified a toll-free waterway policy changed, but the policy was not altered. Though every president since Franklin Roosevelt has recommended that Congress levy a charge on inland waterway users, legislators have been reluctant to implement such charges.