January 2005 | Commentary | Carriers Corner

Short Sea Shipping: Long On Benefits

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To help meet the current congestion crisis on U.S. highway systems and rail networks, the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Maritime Administration are promoting short sea shipping as an environmentally friendly, timely, and cost-effective way to expand freight capacity.

The practice uses existing vessels and infrastructure to move freight between coastal ports, and between coastal ports and inland ports. It is a critical component of the nation's transportation system, and an integral part of the global transportation and logistics network.

Providing consistent service, reliability, competition, and pricing, short sea shipping can help the United States meet present and future domestic and foreign trade demands.

Short sea shipping proponents envision waterways used in tandem with trucks, rail, and pipelines to provide physically and economically integrated, timely, and competitive service for moving freight to final destinations.

Eventually, meeting capacity demands will require new, technologically advanced vessels and infrastructure components—a boon for the American maritime and shipbuilding industries.

And, choosing short sea shipping instead of routing cargo by rail or road provides important environmental benefits such as reduced emissions and energy use.

European Union (EU) countries use short sea shipping to mitigate their significant surface transportation problems. Today, more than 44 percent of all freight movements in the EU are waterborne. EU policymakers have put short sea and coastal shipping—in close coordination with rail and highway freight improvements—at the top of their transportation agendas.

Short sea shipping is already a vital part of the EU's transportation system. It is the only European transportation mode to keep pace with the growth of road transportation. Indeed, its ton-kilometer performance grew by almost 38 percent in the 1990s.

A Fragmented U.S. System

In the United States, public and private sector leaders believe in short sea shipping as a promising concept. But due to infrastructure, legal, and economic constraints facing our shipping supply chain, no agreement has been reached on its application.

The U.S. system today is an aggregate of public and private modes of freight and passenger delivery, each with its own areas of interest and funding. U.S. transportation planners readily acknowledge that the national highway and rail systems cannot build themselves out of an impending trade explosion.

Water, especially along the coastlines, offers a natural and inexpensive solution to many congestion problems. We must make a concerted effort to maintain, enhance, modernize, and expand the base of the marine transportation system and the services at U.S. ports.

But building necessary intermodal freight and passenger capacity in congested metropolitan or transportation corridor areas is capital-intensive and time-consuming—and can sometimes be controversial.

The General Accountability Office is investigating the viability of short sea shipping as part of the United States' overall intermodal transportation system. This should help raise awareness of short sea shipping's potential with the major legislative and executive policymakers in the United States.

Currently under consideration is legislation that would provide resources to help local ports meet their growing infrastructure needs and better handle increased business.

This legislation focuses on leveraging funds from federal, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector.

Genuine progress in moving freight off our crowded highways and rail systems and onto the waterways requires a real commitment on the part of U.S. political leaders.

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