The Dept. of Transportation (DOT) is beefing up efforts to shift more cargo from U.S. highways to coastal and river waterways. Under a new rule released by the agency, the DOT’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) will help identify rivers and coastal routes that could carry cargo efficiently, bypassing congested roads around busy ports and so reducing greenhouse gases.

“For too long, we’ve overlooked the economic and environmental benefits that our waterways and domestic seaports offer as a means of moving freight in this country,” said Secy. of Transportation Ray LaHood, speaking last week at the seventh Annual North American Marine Highways and Logistics Conference in Baltimore. “Moving goods on the water has many advantages: It reduces air pollution. It can help reduce gridlock by getting trucks off our busy surface corridors.”

The so-called “Marine Highway” program stems from a 2007 law requiring the Secy. of Transportation to “establish a short sea transportation program and designate short sea transportation projects to mitigate surface congestion.”

Earlier this year, Secy. LaHood announced $58 million in grants for projects to support the startup or expansion of Marine Highway services, awarded through the Department’s TIGER grants program. Congress has also set aside an additional $7 million in grants, which MARAD will award later this year.

Under the new regulation, regional transportation officials will also be able to apply to have specific transportation corridors – and even individual projects—designated by DOT as a Marine Highway if they meet certain criteria. Once designated, these projects will receive preferential treatment for any future federal assistance from DOT or MARAD.

“There are many places in our country where expanded use of marine transportation just makes sense,” said David Matsuda, MARAD Acting Administrator. “It has so much potential to help our nation in many ways: reduced gridlock and greenhouse gases and more jobs for skilled mariners and shipbuilders.”