Trucks at Work

The waters reach reality

This initiative does more than simply add new lines to a map. It makes our roads safer, expands our capacity for moving goods and reflects the kind of 21st century innovation we are going to need to be competitive in today‘s global marketplace.” -Thomas Barrett, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation

So it looks like the “intermodal-by-sea” concept to create “marine highways” for U.S. freight is going to become reality sooner rather than later.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) got the green light to start establishing a new national network of marine highways to help move cargo across the country in order to cut congestion on some of the nation‘s busiest highways. This new effort will designate specific maritime inland and coastal maritime corridors as “marine highways” initiative, according to U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas Barrett - eligible for up to $25 million in existing federal capital construction funds, while qualifying for up to $1.7 billion in federal highway congestion mitigation and air quality (CMAQ) funds.

Barrett noted that the “Marine Highway” initiative makes it easier for companies to take advantage of the new maritime routes by providing businesses with assistance in locating shippers willing to move goods by water. “These highways have no stoplights, traffic or potholes,” he said. “Sometimes transportation solutions require new concrete, but other times the answer is as simple as using existing water.”

How will it work? Take heavily congested highway I-64 in Virginia, which links the port of Norfolk with Richmond Va. (the state‘s capital and a major cargo hub.) A new service being established by Norfolk-based James River Barge Line plans to move cargo up instead the James River to Richmond, shifting more than 4,000 trucks-worth of cargo off nearby I-64 and onto the waterway.

Building and expanding a waterborne freight network that links to trucking is something Sean T. Connaughton, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, has encouraged for some time. He said today‘s marine operators and logistics providers are under intense pressure to compete and maintain a high quality of service in order to offer shippers added value to their cargoes. The marine highway can provide an effective alternative as a link in the multimodal system.

“When moving high volume and bulk freight, short sea shipping is more cost effective, is more fuel efficient per cargo ton mile, and is a vital alternative transportation mode in a natural disaster,” he said in his first testimony before the U.S. Congress last year. “When fully integrated into the nation‘s transportation system, the marine highway will facilitate enhanced freight flow, expand freight capacity, reduce congestion, and improve air quality.”

He noted America‘s marine highways are defined by the marine operators that carry cargo via the coastal waters, lakes, and river systems of North America and also having at least one port of call in the U.S. Types of vessels that are employed on the marine highway can be classified as: tug and barges (sea-going), tug and barges (river type), small ships, liquid bulk, dry bulk, break bulk, intermodal (container, roll-on/roll-off, lighter aboard ship), and rail-ferry.

“A robust U.S. economy depends on the efficient movement of freight,” he said. “Consider these facts” Since 1995, container growth has increased by at least 10% every year and this growth is expected to continue. By 2020, every major U.S. container port is expected to double the volume of cargo it must process, with East Coast ports tripling in volume and some West Coast ports quadrupling in volume.”

Connaughton added that the U.S. is expected to import 30 million containers in 2010 and 40 million in 2020. The domestic tonnage of freight carried by all U.S. systems will increase by 67%, while international trade is expected to at least double.

“Presently, this domestic freight is carried almost exclusively by road or rail - whereas coastal shipping handles only 2% of our domestic freight, even though coastal counties hold more than half of the nation‘s population,” he noted. “Yet surface transportation congestion adversely impacts our daily lives. The impact on our productivity is enormous. We lose 44 billion person hours a year due to transportation delays - translating into billions of dollars of lost productivity.”

Now, granted, truckers have plenty of reason to view all this with more than just healthy skepticism - for of course it sounds like marine highways would siphon revenue away from trucks. I think, however, there‘s potentially a great opportunity here for truckers to actually gain more freight (an important consideration given how economy is faring these days) in partnerships with marine carriers, while also creating shorter, profitable, and predictable lanes that get drivers the home time they want.

Think, too, about shifting a lot of the hazmat cargo onto the waterways, so truckers get to physically transport such potentially dangerous goods over much shorter distances - lowering the risk for them and especially their drivers.

We‘re also just at the start of this process, too - it‘s not like hundreds of cargo ships can pop up and start hauling freight to and fro. “I am not naive enough to think that our marine highway will solve our congestion problems overnight - after all, much of the vessel capacity we will need to accommodate our projected trade growth is still on the drawing board,” Connaughton stressed.

“Yet the increased use of water to move cargo is evident along many crowded coastal transportation corridors and border crossings. Cargo ferry services are coming on-line to avoid choke points along the coasts and in the Great Lakes,” he said. “These services have sprung up out of economic necessity to avoid land-based obstacles that inhibit the timely and cost efficient movement of cargo and passengers. I believe it is the role of government to provide these emerging services with the tools to succeed and expand.”

Well, we‘re definitely expanding this water highway effort, according to the DOT. Now we just have to see where it‘ll take us.