“Coastal shipping could complement - not compete with - trucking and rail. This is especially critical given current pressures on the trucking industry, such as rising fuel costs and labor shortages.” -From the “America‘s Deep Blue Highway” study recently published by the Institute for Global Maritime Studies (IGMS)
It‘s an intriguing, yet complex, thought: expanding coastal ocean shipping capacity that‘s specifically geared to haul truck trailers. Much like the intermodal partnerships that exist between the trucking and railroad industry, this one would benefit both parties by increasing freight capacity without the need for massive infrastructure costs - while at the same time reducing highway congestion, allowing for more timely and (one hopes) more profitable delivery for truckers.
“Like education or healthcare, transportation is fundamental to the economy and is a major issue in our lives,” noted authors John Curtis Perry, Scott G. Borgerson, and Rockford Weitz in their report “America‘s Deep Blue Highway: How coastal shipping could reduce traffic congestion, lower pollution, and bolster national security.”
The authors - all with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University - collaborated with experts from the Institute for Global Maritime Studies (IGMS) and several economists to broadly analyze the benefits expanded coastal shipping services could bring to the table for the U.S.
“We have a 19th century rail network, a 20th century highway system, and
21st century transportation gridlock looming on the near horizon,” they argue in the report. “We must return to the sea to get freight moving. The now underused deep blue highway could provide resilience and improve the environmental performance of the nation‘s transportation system.”
“This study shows how coastal shipping could improve America‘s economic competitiveness by reducing traffic congestion, air pollution, and infrastructure maintenance costs,” noted Per Heidenreich, a shipping industry expert and former CEO of Heidmar Inc. “Even better, a revitalized marine highway is not only good for the country, but also makes good business sense. Getting our highways moving again through coastal shipping will yield excellent returns. It is a vision for the future that is good for us all and within our reach.”
OK, sure, this all sounds good - but what does it mean on the nuts and bolts level to the freight world?
The coastal shipping plan envisions, on the Atlantic coast, the wider use of Roll-on Roll-off (RoRo) ships - special vessels designed specifically for carrying truck trailers - that seem particularly suited to the salt-water highway. Cargo would be driven aboard at the origin and driven ashore at the destination, allowing truckers to engage in more profitable short-haul rather than long distance runs. On the Pacific coast, small container ships seem more appropriate to leapfrog crowded highways, the report concluded.
Although not a panacea, investing in coastal shipping requires relatively little cost, the authors argue. “Our research indicated that a typical Atlantic port can be prepared to handle RoRo traffic with a $5 million investment,” they said. “An incremental investment of approximately $50 million would be needed to increase daily capacity along the Atlantic coast to a total of 21,000 trailers.”
That capacity is essential for bypassing highway congestion and its related costs, the study claimed. They point to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that freight tonnage will be 70% higher in 2020 than its 1998 level - and increased landside congestion slows the pace of economic productivity, as highway congestion right now costs American commuters 4.2 billion hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel per year. Multiply that by $5 a gallon and the fuel bill is staggering.
Coastal shipping could also bypasses the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ (ASCE) conservative estimate that improving the nation‘s surface transportation infrastructure would require $155.5 billion in annual funding.
There‘s also the environmental and energy security angles as well. “Transportation consumes more than two-thirds of the petroleum Americans now use; petroleum that is increasingly expensive and volatile in price,” the report said. “Trucks use far more oil than trains or ships. On a ton-mile basis, ships are far more efficient users of energy than trucks. And ships powered by natural gas - a technology that is coming on stream -consume no petroleum and emit much less air pollution.”
There are safety and economic security angles in here, too. “Moving freight offshore would add resiliency to a brittle American transportation system,” the study‘s authors argue. “The ASCE rates over 25% of our country‘s 599,893 bridges as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Our report focuses on interstate highways running parallel to the coast and we point to specific instances in which disabling a bridge or tunnel has led to serious disruptions affecting the wider economy.”
The I-95, I-5, and I-10 coastal interstates alone have 6,600 bridges collectively among them. Of these, 1,370 bridges have spans greater than 300 feet and, if destroyed, would take at a minimum months to replace. For the longest bridges over major rivers, it might take years to restore service. “This presents a significant vulnerability for the U.S. economy,” the report stated. “A downed bridge is more than a frustration to commuters; it can cause serious disruptions that ripple through regional trade corridors with consequence across a wide sector of the economy.”
OK, sure - this is by no means an easy, overnight fix to our freight flow issues (and, of course, it‘s full of bias, the study being produced by a maritime group). But there are ideas in here definitely worth exploring - especially as an intermodal relationship could help truckers reduce the kinds of long-haul routes that turn off drivers seeking more home time; the kind of home time more short-haul lanes created by coastal intermodal could provide. Like the report‘s authors stated, more coastal shipping is by no means a panacea. But it‘s an idea worth giving some serious thought to.