Marine Highways

Today cargo containers unloaded from ocean going ships bring goods from producing nations while those same containers carry Washington State apples and Heartland meats and soybeans to foreign ports.

Bulk commodities are a familiar sight in coastal ports and on the substantial American river system but harder to find is containerized freight moving in the domestic trade along our inland and coastal waters. We see containerized freight and trailers ride the rails but rarely do they ride the water. There are exceptions. Container barges provide feeder service for import and export containers in very limited markets; some also carry a minuscule portion of U.S. originated and destined non-bulk cargo.

We should see more of that. The nature of freight and passenger mobility has been changing. Interstate corridors and metropolitan areas are subject to increasing congestion. America’s coastal regions grow in population and development faster than in most of the interior. The demands on aging infrastructure exceed design capacity.

Creative modal alternatives—some more successful than others—have been started on the water, both government supported and strictly private sector initiatives. Commuter ferries have seen resurgence in the densely urban Northeast. A return of domestic freight to the water—the means of early American commerce and development, it is good to remember—also has seen modest growth. The 64 Express container barge service on the James River (otherwise called the M-64) between Hampton Roads and Richmond has served a useful alternative to the congested I-64 roadway. It is subsidized but the price of a service is not a guarantee of success. The M-64 has proven itself a practical, reliable alternative to the slow, unpredictable road route and so it continues to carry more cargo and has given the Port of Richmond new life. A few other marine highway projects are proving themselves without subsidy. All such services have sought the imprimatur of the Federal America’s Marine Highway program.

Progress in marine highway development can depend upon several factors including a project’s economics and service being competitive as well as a measure of government encouragement that is premised on desired public benefits. Will American public policy recognize the significant transportation capacity on the water? Will policy makers and transportation planners value its fuel and carbon efficiency and foster its development? To some extent it already has–and we should encourage it more.

Early efforts were undertaken by advocates such as the Coastwise Coalition, a group that was chaired by Paul Bea and had its roots in a National Defense Transportation Association study on domestic maritime opportunities. Those efforts had some success with the enactment of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Congress recognized the efficiencies of marine transportation by including “short sea transportation” provisions that are the basis for the USDOT America’s Marine Highway program (AMH). Spurred by that law the Secretary of Transportation designated and mapped AMH routes and the Maritime Administration conducted AMH project selections and grant awards. The program is a modest one but remains a major maritime transportation objective in the Department of Transportation, one that is shared in states where the renewed use of waterways for domestic shipping has been embraced. [Read more about AMH.]

PHB Public Affairs has been prominent in advocating and advancing marine highway policy as it also has worked to gain recognition and assistance for marine highway projects. Efficient and clean marine transportation will have a larger role in American goods movement in the coming years. There’s more to be done.