Coastal Shipping: A Potential Solution to the Challenges of a Growing Freight Sector

One SeaBridge Freight ferry avoids 29 million truck highway miles per year. Courtesy: SeaBridge Freight.

Coastal shipping, short sea shipping, and America’s Marine Highway are all terms to describe a method of freight transport that is slowly becoming more prominent in the U.S. as a solution to some of the upcoming challenges facing the freight sector.

Coastal shipping, as it’s most commonly known, is freight movement that happens on the water without crossing a major ocean or leaving a continent. To give an example, a coastal shipping route could be between Baltimore and Charleston or Los Angeles and Oakland. 

By shipping via water routes, goods avoid congested highways and cities, and when done well, this can reduce fuel costs, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the U.S. only moves 2% of our freight along domestic water routes. And, according to the Institute for Global Maritime Studies at Tufts University, there are a lot of reasons for this, and the most prominent barriers are financial, legal and environmental.

Coastal shipping is very capital intensive, as it requires ships, and in some cases, additional dredging and infrastructure construction at ports. Its business model also hampers its viability because coastal shipping routes often takes longer than trucking. This is a significant problem in the era of “Just in Time” shipping, where businesses retain a bare minimum of inventory and rely heavily on a fast freight sector to deliver goods.

The U.S. laws governing coastal shipping are another hurdle. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (or the Jones Act) requires that any ship stopping at multiple U.S. ports must be U.S. built, owned, and crewed. Today, the U.S. is not the dominant manufacturer or operator in the maritime industry. And while this law was meant to protect the American merchant marine industry, it makes it very expensive to start a coastal shipping industry that can compete with an already robust trucking sector.

There are also significant environmental concerns that accompany coastal shipping. If cleaner fuels and newer engine technologies are part of the shipping, then emissions benefits can be positive. But making coastal shipping work can also require substantial dredging. That dredging can harm the marine ecosystem.

However, there are several U.S. coastal shipping initiatives that appear to both be competitive with other modes and offer an environmental advantage.  

One example is a barge service run by SeaBridge Freight  in the Gulf of Mexico, connecting Port Manatee, Florida, with Brownsville, Texas.

 The benefits of SeaBridge Freight include:

  • Capacity of 600 TEU’s (twenty-foot equivalent units, or a 20 foot long container)
  • One SeaBridge Freight voyage removes 400,000 truck highway miles or 29 million truck highway miles per year
  • Eliminates 375 tons of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxide emissions, or 27,000 tons annually
  • Leads to fuel savings of more than 4 million gallons of diesel fuel per year

Other interesting coastal shipping initiatives in the U.S. are the 64 Express service in Virginia and Coastal Connect’s project to start up a CNG barge service on the east coast.

And there’s Europe, where 40% of domestic freight movement happens on the water. One example is their “RORO Past France,” (a RORO is a vessel that allows trucks to roll on and off the ship), which ships goods from Bruges, Belgium to Bilbao, Spain.

 The benefits of the RORO Past France include:

  • Avoidance of 1,242 miles of congested highway
  • Conveyance of 198 semi trailers and 600 containers
  • Reported savings up to 20% as a result of more efficient planning of driver hours and the ability of companies to grow their businesses without purchasing additional trucks.

America’s freight system must be modernized in a way that ensures that the most efficient and cleanest method for moving cargo is used at every mile along the travel route.  Coastal shipping is not a panacea to the challenges that come with our growing freight sector. However, these examples demonstrate that coastal shipping can offer sound environmental and health benefits and deserves to be one of the methods included in any national freight improvement strategy.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 7, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    That’s interesting. I’m from Chicago and see the same attitude. Anyway, I’m gonna back soon.

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