Marine highways get more funding

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Making better use of our rivers and coastal routes offers an intelligent way to relieve some of the biggest challenges we face in transportation – congestion on our roads, climate change, fossil fuel energy use and soaring road maintenance costs.” –Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

The U.S. Department of Transportation is starting to put more its money (which, of course, is the taxpayers' moolah; greenbacks generated by you and me) where its mouth is in terms of supporting “water-borne” intermodal connections.

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Just four months after unveiling the America’s Marine Highway Program, the DOT’s Maritime Administration is making $7 million worth of funds available to start work on some eight projects and six initiatives along the “maritime highway” corridors – which includes inland waterways and coastal sea routes – out of some 35 applications submitted by ports and local transportation agencies.

This money is in addition to some $58 million grants the DOT has already plunked down to start up or expand marine highway efforts.

Now, a lot of truckers might view all this as yet another example of the DOT’s bias towards big rigs, grumbling (with some justification) that it siphons off funds desperately needed to maintain and expand traditional highway infrastructure.

However, I’m in the camp that believes this “marine highway” effort could actually be a big boon to truckers – helping them shed a lot of unprofitable long haul routes, while giving them more regional and local business to support “marine intermodal” shipments – the kind of freight that keeps drivers closer to home, burns less diesel, and doesn’t wear out equipment as fast. It also opens up the opportunity for truckers to refocus more capacity on the expeditor model in some ways – charging more for fast, time-definite delivery.

[Here’s a broader look at some of the benefits and pit-falls associated with an increased use of marine intermodal for truckers.]

The recently selected corridors that are getting this new (albeit small) pot of funding are scattered along the West, East and Gulf Coasts, the Great Lakes and several inland waterways. The Maritime Administration said it will assist the project sponsors in developing marine transportation services, identify potential freight and passenger markets, and determine eligibility for future “marine highway” federal funding.

I am going to list the DOT’s list of these projects below – along with the descriptions – so truckers can look them over for potential freight hauling opportunities:

Cross Sound Enhancements Project (Connecticut Department of Transportation): this project will improve ferry capacity and reduce environmental impacts by upgrades to three passenger vehicle/ferries operating between New London, CT, and Orient Point in Long Island, NY.

New England Marine Highway Expansion Project (Maine Department of Transportation): this project will expand an existing container-on-barge service operating between Newark, NJ, Boston, MA, and Portland, ME. Service capacity and reliability will be improved by the addition of a more seaworthy vessel in the service.

Cross Gulf Container Expansion (Ports of Manatee, FL, and Brownsville, TX): will expand an existing container-on-barge operation by increasing the frequency and capacity of the service between Brownsville, TX, and Port Manatee, FL, across the Gulf of Mexico.

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Tenn-Tom Waterway Pilot Project (Port Itawamba, MS): this project involves a new container-on-barge service between the Port of Itawamba, MS, on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Port of Mobile, AL, to function as the inland leg of a new route between deep draft Gulf Coast container terminals and manufacturing centers near Port Itawamba.

Gulf Atlantic Marine Highway Project (South Carolina State Ports Authority and Port of Galveston, TX): this project is intended to transport containerized freight between Gulf, Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic coastal ports on a modern fleet of U.S. flag vessels.

Detroit-Wayne County Ferry (Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority): this project will develop a cross-border passenger service between Detroit, MI, and Windsor, Ontario, Canada, focusing on transporting commuters.

Trans-Hudson Rail Service (Port Authority of New York & New Jersey): this project proposes to expand the quality and capacity of an ongoing cross-harbor rail float service operating between the Greenville Rail Terminal in Jersey City, NJ, and Brooklyn, NY.

James River Container Expansion (Virginia Port Authority): this project will expand an existing container-on-barge service between the Hampton Roads region of Virginia and Richmond, VA, by increasing frequency of service and starting a new inter-terminal barge service in Hampton Roads.

In addition to the America’s Marine Highways project designations, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood also identified six initiatives eligible to apply for federal funding for further development of concepts:

Hudson River Food Corridor Initiative (New York City Soil & Water Conservation District): this initiative will evaluate the feasibility of an alternate means of transporting fresh produce from agricultural regions in North-Central New York near the Hudson River and Long Island to the New York-Newark Metropolitan Area via water.

New Jersey Marine Highway Initiative (New Jersey Department of Transportation): this initiative will assess the feasibility and opportunities to develop a network of Marine Highway services within New Jersey and between New Jersey and ports in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia.

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East Coast Marine Highway Initiative (Ports of New Bedford, MA, Baltimore, MD, and Canaveral, FL): this initiative proposes to develop a Marine Highway service utilizing a fleet of existing and new-build U.S. flag vessels to transport both international containers and trailers to destinations along the I-95 Corridor. The initiative includes the ports of New Bedford, MA, Baltimore, MD and Canaveral, FL, with others to be added where feasible.

West Coast Hub-Feeder Initiative (Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District): this initiative will examine the feasibility of an intermodal distribution network served by a Marine Highway service along the coastlines of the states of Washington, Oregon and California.

Golden State Marine Highway Initiative (Ports of Redwood City, Hueneme and San Diego; and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District): this initiative is a joint effort by four California ports to improve the efficiency of freight movement by developing a service linking California’s ports to form a 1,100-mile Marine Highway along the west coast.

Illinois-Gulf Marine Highway Initiative (Heart of Illinois Regional Port District): this initiative will examine opportunities for a Marine Highway service to support Midwest industrial production and operating between U.S. Gulf Coast seaports and Peoria, IL, via the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

This is only the start of a very big transportation task – one that will take time and effort across the freight industry to make a success. Truckers, in my view, should be full participants in this because it’ll help rationalize capacity better, lowering fuel costs, separately out “premium” time-sensitive freight customers, and offer fleets ways to create more appealing work days for drivers.

Perhaps I’m being over-idealistic here – and it wouldn’t be the first time. Yet I really believe the opportunities outweigh the drawbacks when it comes to exploring marine intermodal efforts.

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