DOT Chief LaHood renews call for Marine Highways

By Jeff Berman · April 7, 2011

While the majority of transportation interests on Capitol Hill are largely fixated on getting a future surface transportation authorization passed, Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week took to the water in releasing a detailed report on United States Marine Highways.

The report, which DOT said was requested by Congress to demonstrate how water-based transportation can help the U.S. reduce highway congestion and lessen wear and tear and replacement costs for roads and bridges, focuses on the benefits of leveraging coastal and river transportation as part of the country’s new clean energy economy.

Among the notable components of the report are:

  • the justification for expanding the utilization of Marine Highway services and the interests of the Federal government in encouraging greater use of Marine Highways;

  • improving economic competitiveness while creating and sustaining jobs; and

  • providing an environmentally sustainable transportation system that requires less energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions per ton-mile of freight moved, among others.

“America’s maritime transportation system is a major priority for President Obama’s administration,” said Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement.  “When we finish America’s fully-integrated, national marine highway system, our legacy will be more than routes on water.  It will be a country less dependent on foreign oil.  It will be a 21st century means of moving people and goods. It will be a future that America is prepared to win.”

In April 2010, LaHood heralded the inception of “America’s Marine Highway Program,” in an effort to shift freight to waterways from congested U.S. highways.

As part of this effort the DOT’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) was charged with helping to identify rivers and coastal routes that could carry cargo efficiently, bypassing congested roads around busy ports and reducing greenhouse gases.

The April 2010 announcement followed $58 million in grants for projects supporting the expansion of Marine Highway services, which were awarded through the DOT’s TIGER grants program. Another $7 million was awarded later in 2010.

Paul Bea, Chairman of the marine highway advocacy group, Coastwise Coalition, said he was pleased that USDOT finally produced the report to Congress.

“Those of us who follow the subject closely know it has been in various stages of draft for well over a year,” said Bea. “It’s good to see it done and out.  It will serve as a very useful reference document on a subject that will still be new to many policy makers in Washington.  Importantly, it will give those offices on the Hill a more comprehensive discussion of the issues than did a January report from the Congressional Research Service, which had a very narrow scope and generally doubtful outlook based on limited information. The report outlines potential policy directions and the rationale for considering such tax and other policy changes.  On balance: another advance toward the goal of developing a marine highway policy as part of the national surface transportation system.”

Not everyone is sold on the benefits of maritime highways, though. A previous research report by Stifel Nicolaus analyst John Larkin, noted that for most modally competitive origin-destination pairs, short sea shipping is currently not an economically attractive mode. He added that when fuel prices are relatively low trucking is typically a more attractive option for shippers when considering cost and service levels.

“Short sea shipping appears to be gaining more attention from carriers, shippers and those in Washington, but it remains a viable shipping alternative for only a small portion of domestic freight,” wrote Larkin. “In addition, it is clear to us that short sea shipping is not an economically attractive alternative in most lanes, at least at current fuel prices and without government subsidies. We view short sea shipping as an alternative that may become more attractive during periods of tight truckload capacity and/or high fuel prices.”

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About the Author

Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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