The U.S. Department of Transportation should explore the possibility of expanding the Marine Highway concept beyond barge services for containers to other kinds of cargo normally carried by truck or rail, Acting Maritime Administrator Paul Jaenichen said Thursday.
The 2007 legislation that established the Marine Highway program defines the beneficiary of short-sea shipping as intermodal containers, but Jaenichen said a visit to the Port of Houston last week opened his eyes to other cargoes that could be good candidates for barge transport.
One of the Maritime Administration's main initiatives is to support the development of short-sea transportation on domestic waterways as an alternative for intermodal loads — as well as passengers on ferries — to reduce congestion and emissions on major highway corridors. The agency has designated 21 coastal and inland waterway routes that serve as extensions of the surface transportation system. Obtaining a designation allows project sponsors to qualify for grants to help with start up costs. Projects can include long, multi-state routes, short routes that feed into large corridors, and crossings that transit harbors or waterways.
MarAd collaborates with port authorities, metropolitan planning organizations, state and local governments, carriers, and shippers to help identify potential business opportunities and secure the necessary resources to build or modify dock facilities, obtain equipment and vessels, hire operators, and carry out other functions.
A weekly barge service, for example, began last year on the M-580 Marine Highway connecting the Port of Stockton on the San Joaquin River with the Port of Oakland.
Speaking on a panel with other DOT officials at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' annual Washington Briefing, Jaenichen said large steel coils that move through ports are the type of cargo suitable for highway conversion. The coils are so heavy that only one can be carried at a time on a flatbed truck, but 70 of them could be transported the same distance on a barge.
MarAd would need Congress to update the law to allow Marine Highway designations to apply for other purposes.
It's unclear whether widening the definition of Marine Highways to include breakbulk cargo would materially drive new business to the water. Barges are used for hauling all kinds of products, but the American Waterways Operators, the interest group for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, doesn't have any statistics on how much breakbulk cargo is moved on domestic waterways. Breakbulk cargo usually moves on a less frequent basis than containers that typically hold consumer goods that are in high demand, which means vessels often are scheduled as needed rather than requiring a scheduled service.