OPED: Americas Marine Highway: Who Will Champion The National Program?

What Maritime Executive Will Move the Americas Marine Highway Program Forward?

By Tony Munoz, Editor-in-Chief, Maritime Executive Magazine and the MarEx Newsletter

Last month the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) hosted a conference for maritime executives who wanted to hear U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announce the inception of “America’s Marine Highway Program (AMH), which will operate under the guidance of the Maritime Administration (MARAD).” AMH will be funded by $58 million from DOT’s Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program along with another $7 million from congressional appropriations. Nonetheless, the actual cost of AMH and the logistics of getting it off the ground may, in fact, keep major vessel participants on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.

At the same time that the U.S. government remains bogged down in managing and maintaining the 160,000-mile national highway infrastructure, appropriating a 2010 Federal Highway Administration budget of $41.8 billion in the process, America’s 25,000 miles of natural waterways are already logistically capable of handling massive tonnage from the concrete highway system. Furthermore, this nation needs to address the national cargo distribution today as it is projected to grow by 73 percent over the next 25 years.

Urban areas of this country are already congested by gridlock, and the cost of building more highways to accommodate more freight would be astronomical, to say nothing about the impact on societal health care costs from additional carbon emissions. This nation doesn’t need more studies telling us that the aging railroad and existing roadway systems cannot handle more freight. It’s obvious to everyone living in America that there is already too much traffic on our roadways.

In 1957, more than 30 percent of this nation’s domestic freight moved by water. Today, less than four percent of the nation’s freight is waterborne. While the answer to highway congestion and pollution is found on our coastal and inland waterways, the government will need to provide incentives to move the AMH program forward with a sense of urgency. Currently there are 360 ports in the country that are fully capable of handling vessel cargoes, so the infrastructure is already in place to accommodate the transfer of over-the-road cargoes.

First and foremost, the Harbor Maintenance Tax must be repealed immediately because it re-taxes imported cargoes that are transferred to another U.S. destination by water. Moreover, while the tax collects $1.25 for each $1,000 of imported cargo value, the fact is the monies aren’t always used for their intended target. In fact, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has been used for federal deficit reduction and other non-related activities. The tax is a bad idea whose time has passed, and repealing it is the first step in moving cargoes off concrete highways and onto the waterways.

The travesty of today’s U.S. merchant marine is that the average Jones Act vessel is 21.1 years old, and only six newly built vessels are scheduled to enter into service in 2010. Moreover, while subsidies for merchant marine services ended with the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, MARAD’s Title XI funding for 2010 stands at a meager $3.6 million. If the government is expecting private vessel operators to foot the bill to construct the necessary vessels to operate a short sea marine highway, then I’m telling you, “There’s no way to get there from here.”

What short sea shipping and the AMH program need is a high-profile “poster boy” whose name and credibility can move this strategic national program forward. There are a number of maritime executives in America whose company’s infrastructure and wherewithal can lead in revitalizing of US Shipbuilding, the US Merchant Marine, and solve the national highway congestion crisis. But, today, the Americas Marine Highway Program turns its lonely eyes to the mystical being on the horizon. Can you think of anybody?