DOT approves $7 million in grants for Marine Highway projects

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in August identified 32 targets for further development under its new America’s Marine Highway Program. Selections made by DOT’s Maritime Administration (MarAd) include 18 current corridors, eight projects in existence or under development and six initiatives that show promise.

A few weeks later it awarded $7 million in Marine Highway grants to three of the projects, plus $800,000 for further study to three of the initiatives.

DOT unveiled America’s Marine Highway Program in April to move some cargo and passenger traffic off roads and onto the water to reduce traffic, fossil fuel use and soaring road maintenance costs, while combating climate change and creating jobs.

Water corridors are long, multi-state extensions of the surface transportation system. The program selections include some on the East, West and Gulf coasts, and in the Great Lakes and major inland waterway regions. The M-5 Corridor, for example, connects commercial navigation routes, ports and harbors from San Diego to the U.S. border north of Seattle, and spans Washington, Oregon and California.

The 14 projects and initiatives were chosen from 35 applications submitted by ports and local transportation agencies. Their selection guarantees preferential treatment for future federal assistance. Projects were also eligible to compete for the federal Marine Highway Grants.

The Cross Gulf Container Expansion Project, sponsored by the ports of Brownsville, Texas, and Manatee, Fla., was awarded $3.34 million to help modify two barges and purchase equipment to save more than 2.7 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. The James River Container Expansion Project, sponsored by the Virginia Port Authority, won $1.1 million to buy two barges and increase and expand service. The third, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Pilot Project, sponsored by the Port of Itawamba, Miss., won $1.76 million to help buy and modify nine barges.

Other projects identified by DOT, but not chosen for the first round of grants, would increase ferry capacity between Connecticut and New York; develop a commuter-focused cross-border passenger service between Detroit and Ontario, Canada; and expand a cross-harbor rail float service between New Jersey and Brooklyn.

Also selected was the New England Marine Highway Expansion Project, which currently uses a tug-and-barge model to move cargo in and out of New York, Boston and Portland, Maine. It would expand a service that began in 1995 and ran sporadically until 2007, when it geared up to continuous operation, said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.

“In the application, we said, ‘Here’s a service that’s been up and running without any subsidy for years,’” said Henshaw. “Maybe it’s a good model for beginning a marine highway project and potentially expanding it over time.”

The existing service is not sustainable over the long term because of the tug-and-barge model’s susceptibility to severe weather conditions, Henshaw said.

“You need to find a better vessel for moving cargo, especially to attract import cargo, which is very interested in being in a particular place at a particular time,” Henshaw said. “If you can’t guarantee that, it won’t work.”

Among the selected initiatives was an East Coast Marine Highway sponsored by the ports of Baltimore, New Bedford, Mass., and Canaveral, Fla. The highway would use a fleet of new and existing U.S.-flag vessels to transport containers and trailers along the same 1,000-mile route followed by Interstate-95, offering options for medium and long-haul shipping to destinations currently served by land-based transport. Additional ports could be added to the highway down the road.

“We’ve advanced to the next stage, which is more research and analysis about how this might play out,” said Richard Scher, spokesman for the Port of Baltimore. “The ports of New Bedford and Canaveral were gracious enough to bring us into this proposal.”

Stan Payne, the chief executive of Port Canaveral, said his port has been a leader in the discussion about America’s Marine Highway Program for some time.

“It is our belief that the combination of our low ports costs, quick access to main shipping channels, close proximately to the huge Orlando/Central Florida market, and our focus on the smaller operators that could get overlooked in larger ports makes us a desirable terminal point for a short-sea route,” he said.

Together with the Massachusetts and Maryland ports, Canaveral has worked to identify shipments currently using the I-95 route that could be shifted to water transport. Traffic on I-95 accounts for an estimated 35 percent of all U.S. vehicle miles and more than 5.3 billion tons of freight each year.

“The timeline now rests, to some degree, with MarAd,” Payne said, “as it develops the framework of the America’s Marine Highway ‘Initiative’ program and the type and level of assistance that will be provided to move us to the next level.”

That next level is for the “initiative” to be recognized as a “project,” which would make it eligible for direct funding. It was one of three to win Marine Highway grant money for further study, along with the West Coast Hub-Feeder and Golden State Marine Highway, which proposes services to 13 west coast ports, and the Illinois-Gulf Marine Highway, which would support Midwest industrial production with service between Gulf Coast seaports and Peoria, Ill.

Other initiatives include a Hudson River food corridor to transport fresh produce to the New York/Newark area; a New Jersey Marine Highway within the state and with ports in New York, New England, Maryland and Virginia; and a 1,100-mile marine highway linking four California ports.

Chris Bernard

By Professional Mariner Staff