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Shortsea Shipping Concept Gathers Steam: New Grants and Initiatives Revive Much-Needed Transport Mode

Published Jan 12, 2011 10:13 AM by The Maritime Executive

Norfolk-Richmond short sea barge/container service to be inaugurated in November; details still being fine-tuned

Long a dream of many players in the mid-Atlantic shipping corridor, it finally looks like shortsea shipping will come to the ports of Norfolk and Richmond, VA. Today, Maritime Administrator Sean T. Connaughton will be part of a ceremony that will inaugurate container-on-barge service between Virginia International Terminal in Norfolk and the Port of Richmond, VA. The prospect of reviving an idea that has been floating around for many years breathes new life into the concept that Shortsea Shipping has value in many ways. And, not a moment too soon.

The start of the James River service coincides nicely with today’s MARAD announcement of an interim final rule intended “to solicit recommendations for short sea transportation routes to be designated as Marine Highway Corridors and to solicit applications from interested parties to participate in a short sea transportation Project, as
required by section 55605(c) of Public Law 110-140, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.” Although the details of the Norfolk-based barge and ship service are yet to be worked out, the news is encouraging on all fronts – and not just in Virginia.
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Today’s Federal Register defines short sea transportation as meaning “the carriage by vessel of cargo that is contained in intermodal cargo containers and loaded by crane on the vessel or loaded on the vessel by means of wheeled technology; and that is loaded at a port in the United States and unloaded either at another port in the United States or at a port in Canada located in the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway System; or loaded at a port in Canada located in the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway System and unloaded at a port in the United States.”

In general, the new DOT program directs the Secretary of Transportation to promulgate interim regulations not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act and further delegates authority to the Maritime Administrator to administer this program. The program, dubbed “America's Marine Highway Program,” is clearly a step in the right direction. And, MARAD’s identification of the Hampton Roads–Norfolk corridor as an appropriate route to test its marine highways initiative is a smart move. The James River could potentially provide real relief on the intermodal corridor running from Richmond to Norfolk, which includes the highly congested Interstate 64 Highway.

The fledgling service has yet to demonstrate that it will lower fuel costs, but certainly, if it is utilized to any extent at all, it will serve to relieve congestion on highways that parallel the James River. But, this is anything but an unproven concept. In Connecticut, for example, America's Marine Highway – as MARAD's Sean Connaughton has coined it – has significantly reduced traffic on I-95, partly through the use of a high speed ferry system between the state and New York. According to the Connecticut Maritime Coalition, as much as 19 million tons of cargo, 2.6 million people and 850,000 vehicles are moved over water by private operators each year and waterborne transport keeps 950,000 trucks off Connecticut's roads annually.

The new, Virginia-based barge service got a much-needed shot in the arm in July, when sponsor T. Parker Host received a 3-year, $2.3-million Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement Program grant from the Richmond Regional Planning District. CMAQ is managed by the Federal Highway Administration through regional planning agencies. Still waiting for action is the federal effort to remove the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) from shortsea routing along the U.S. coasts.

In then end, through the use of a few "super" ports on each coast, there is real potential for millions of tons of cargo in all forms to be moved on small feeder ships to other, smaller, shallow draft "niche" ports. Richmond is clearly one of those ports. We don't need thirty ports each dredged to 60 feet. Those resources are probably better spent on maintenance of existing berths, intermodal port infrastructure and waterways. Eventually, and through a coordinated effort to remove trucks from the roads, we'll have to spend less on maintenance of the highways and thereby make the tax dollars that we do have, go farther.

As the promising Richmond-Norfolk service kicks off, the elimination of the shortsea component of the HMT will foster and perpetuate the current surge in domestic maritime activity that comes in the form of shipbuilding, maritime-related employment, reduced emissions, sealift capabilities in time of war and yes, increased tax revenues. But if we need a good excuse to finally get this done, then highway issues are as good a place to begin as any. – MarEx

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this or any other aspect of this e-newsletter at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com .