New Federal Program Aims to Move Some Cargo to Waterways

April 07, 2010

We may be seeing fewer trucks on the road soon, with a new initiative announced Wednesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to transfer more cargo on the water than on the U.S. highways.

The "America's Marine Highway" program, as it's called, will involve the Department's Maritime Administration (MARAD), which will help identify rivers and coastal routes that could carry cargo efficiently, bypassing congested roads around busy ports and 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 LaHood, speaking to transportation professionals at the 7th Annual North American Marine Highways and Logistics Conference in Baltimore, Md. "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."

Under the new regulation, regional transportation officials will be able to apply to have specific transportation corridors designated by the DOT as a marine highway if they meet certain criteria. Once designated, these projects will receive preferential treatment for any future federal assistance from the department or MARAD.

"There are many places in our country where expanded use of marine transportation just makes sense," said David Matsuda, acting administrator of the Maritime Administration.

Like rail intermodal, there is a limited amount of cargo that can realistically be shifted to marine highways. Barge movements are typically slower than those by truck -- and you still need trucks at each end of the move for most freight. Barges don't exactly pull up to the dock at Wal-Mart.

Proponents point out that in addition to reducing congestion and pollution, marine highways are safer. The Journal of Commerce recently reported that two operators, SeaBridge Freight and 64 Express, report no cargo losses or injury to employees in more than a year of service. SeaBridge operates across the Gulf of Mexico. 64 Express, operated by James River Barge Line, provides weekly service on the James River in Virginia.

Hank Hoffman, a veteran trucking executive who is now president of SeaBridge Freight, told JOC, his company has never had an accident or injury or a freight claim. In comparison, as a trucker, he told the paper, "I would have made plans in my financials for how much money we were going to spend on accidents, how much cargo we're going to have to pay for, either loss or damage."

The Marine Highway initiative stems from a 2007 law requiring the Secretary of Transportation to "establish a short sea transportation program and designate short sea transportation projects to mitigate surface congestion."

Earlier this year, Secretary LaHood announced $58 million in grants for projects to support the start-up or expansion of Marine Highways services, awarded through the Department's TIGER grants program. Congress has set aside an additional $7 million in grants, which MARAD will award later this year.

The final rule can be found at