Faced with congested freeways, shortages of truck drivers and a doubling of international trade by 2025, federal officials and the transportation industry are seeking to increase shipping on the nation's maritime highway -- the 13,000 miles of navigable coastal and inland waters that reach the vast majority of states.
Their plan calls for developing fleets of small cargo ships and tug-powered barges to haul some of the freight usually carried by truck to and from the nation's ports. The concept is known as short-sea shipping.
"This has enormous potential on both coasts, our rivers and the Great Lakes," said Robert Kunkel, chairman of the Short-Sea Shipping Cooperative Program, a national coalition of government agencies, trucking lines and maritime companies. "It might be the only answer to relieve highway, rail and port congestion."
In California, the Port of Oakland is considering an agreement to move cargo on barges to the inland Port of Sacramento. Amnav Maritime, a West Coast tug operation, is considering short-sea routes out of Los Angeles, and some researchers say such operations will eventually become necessary on the West Coast as traffic clogs the main north-south highways, such as Interstate 5.
Ron Silva, president of Westar Transport, a commercial trucker based in the San Joaquin Valley, says that if six coastal cargo ships operated within a 150-mile radius of Los Angeles, they could do the work of 4,200 trucks. Silva, who is participating in a study by Cal State Long Beach, advocates combining short-sea shipping with trucking operations.
"It's just a matter of time before rising transportation costs force the shipping industry to reevaluate how it moves freight," Silva said. "California and the West Coast might be missing the boat literally."
In the Gulf of Mexico, Osprey Line, one of the nation's first short-sea shipping operations, serves domestic ports in Texas and the South. The Port of New York now ships cargo up the Hudson River to Albany via barges, and a second operation is planned between New York and the Port of Bridgeport, Conn. There is talk of providing service as far south as Florida.
Behind the fledgling effort is the U.S. Transportation Department and the U.S. Maritime Administration, which have made development of short-sea shipping one of their highest priorities. They have partnered with a variety of maritime interests, including shipping companies, labor, ports and industry associations.
Small cargo vessels once formed the backbone of the country's commercial transportation system. Over the last 50 years, however, domestic shipping declined sharply as the nation's highways, railroads and trucking industry developed.
The U.S. transportation system now carries upward of 17 billion tons of freight a year, valued at more than $11 trillion. Domestic cargo volumes are expected to increase by about 70% by 2025, while international trade is expected to at least double.
If trends continue, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach anticipate a tripling of cargo by 2030 -- the equivalent of 22.5 million 40-foot shipping containers. The Port of Oakland expects an increase from 1 million containers to more than 3 million.
The load would be enormous for truck and rail service. Already, truck traffic, which is responsible for moving 78% of the nation's freight, is being delayed in major cities and a shortage of drivers is making expansion difficult.
Rail networks are encountering more congestion as well, causing regular freight train delays at major transportation hubs, such as Los Angeles. On the East Coast, underdeveloped rail networks and severe congestion on Interstate 95 have slowed the movement of goods.
"For the first time in history, we are hearing from shippers, not shipping lines, that bottlenecks are affecting their bottom line," said Jeff Shane, undersecretary of policy at the Transportation Department. "If we are hitting the wall in the traditional modes of transport, short-sea shipping might become a major contributor to goods movement."
Supporters say the approach is working well in Europe, where trucking costs are high and freight rail service is not as well developed as in the United States. Barges and cargo ships now carry almost 44% of all goods around the European continent.
Studies show that short-sea shipping could improve air quality and reduce highway congestion by eliminating the need for thousands of diesel trucks. Planners estimate that within two years of start-up, the Bridgeport, Conn., operation alone could eliminate 50,000 truck trips a year.
In addition to trucks, supporters say short-sea shipping could eliminate the need to spend billions of dollars for additional highway and rail capacity. A highway lane now costs at least $32 million a mile; interchanges $100 million or more.
"If you think of waterways as the highways of the seas, then you realize that the roadway is already built," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.