The cure for traffic congestion: Marine highways?

Recent studies suggest that moving more freight to the seas could alleviate congestion along some of the nation’s busiest freight corridors, such as Interstate 95 on the East Coast and the Ambassador Bridge crossing between the United States and Canada at Detroit.

On Thursday, Feb. 15, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on short sea shipping (SSS) as a viable alternative to shipping freight by truck. The hearing took place in the subcommittee of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, chaired by Congressman Elijah Cummings, D-Md. The purpose of the hearing, Cummings said, was to determine to what extent government assistance is necessary for SSS to become a solution to traffic congestion.

In his opening statements, Cummings said maritime transportation accounts for 13 percent of the total freight tonnage moved in the country, compared to 70 percent by trucks. All transportation modes receive more attention than maritime, he said. As an example, the 2007 budget for maritime transportation is $446 million compared to $39 billion in federal highway aid to states.

“Congestion should be the top concern for every driver stuck behind a semi-truck in rush hour,” Cummings said.

The term “short sea shipping” describes a mode of transportation for moving commercial freight between domestic ports through inland and coastal waterways. Most of the freight being moved through SSS is bulk cargo shipments such as petroleum and grain that do not have to be moved in a time-sensitive manner.

Some SSS proponents — such as Arlington, Va.-based SeaBridge Inc. (www.seabridgeferries.com) — are targeting long-haul truck movements and believe that trucks, and their drivers, could be ferried for quick movement along the Eastern coast. For example, SeaBridge believes that a driver could pick up a shipment in Connecticut, drive to a port in New York and board a high-speed ferry bound to northern Florida. While on the ferry, the driver could sleep and obtain his needed rest period.

Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton said during his testimony that waterways or “marine highways” are underutilized. A few shippers are using SSS to move containerized freight through inland waterways and the Great Lakes, and thus taking cargo off of the roadways. Getting shippers to buy into SSS services to move containers and trucks along the East Coast is difficult due to the lack of facilities and the scarcity of port space, he said.

“It is difficult to find capacity to support these operations,” Connaughton says. He also pointed to a lack in the type of vessels to make SSS operations effective, as well as financial impediments such as the harbor maintenance tax (HMT) that forces shippers to pay tax two to three times for cargo moved between domestic ports.

A recent study by a public-private partnership called SCOOP found that the HMT yielded $1.7 to $1.9 million in tax revenue per year for domestic containers. “That seems like a little bit of money,” Cunningham said. “If HMT is the major impediment to short sea shipping, what is the problem?”

To promote SSS, Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, suggested the subcommittee draft a piece of legislation to send to the Transportation Committee that would exempt certain commercial cargo that is loaded or unloaded at U.S. ports from the HMT.