America’s Marine Highway

Why do we not have a comprehensive Marine Highway system in the United States?  Is it due to a shortage of navigable waterways?  Is it due to a lack of qualified merchant mariners to man the vessels?  Is it due to a lack of cargo?  Or is it due to the lack of a cohesive plan?  Little more than a Google search on the internet will indicate that it is due to the lack of a plan.

There are multitudes of organizations (some now defunct or idle) ranging from the Marine Highways Cooperative (MHC) to the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) and studies touting the advantages and need for a comprehensive Marine Highway program.  One thing that ties them all together is generally the statement that they are supported or affiliated with the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD).  Unfortunately, MARAD is the one organization that doesn’t appear to have a plan.

MARAD has been under the dubious leadership of David T. Matsuda since being appointed by President Obama on July 28, 2009.  There have been numerous reports and studies released by the Maritime Administration during his tenure, yet there have not been policies enacted that ties it all together.    Whether it has been the announcement on November 30, 2011 of new designs for shipping vessels on America’s Marine Highways or the recent closing of the Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS), the decisions of the current administration at MARAD have been widely panned.

It is unfortunate that the current administrator, Mr. Matsuda, of the Maritime Administration appears to have gained much of his experience in the railroad industry.  Perhaps his input or lack thereof, is the reason that the maritime industry has been left out of recent transportation bills.  A prime example of the lack of leadership for the maritime industry in the United States was a MARAD commissioned report announced on October 28, 2011 titled “Comparison of U.S. and Foreign-Flag Operating Costs.”  This report borders on advocating the elimination or weakening of the Jones Act – the very law that protects U.S. domestic shipping.

Leadership of the U.S. Maritime Administration aside, what is needed is a plan.  Fortunately, the European Union (EU) has provided a prime example with the European Commission’s “Integrated Maritime Policy.”  This policy strives not to replace policies on specific maritime sectors, but to coordinate them in order to save time and money.   The EU has adopted a long term outlook on shipping with their plans and policies extending out 10 years.  They have placed specific emphasis on short sea shipping with the creation of the European Shortsea Network (ESN).  Through the ESN, the different countries are able to coordinate their activities, as well as steer prospective customers towards service providers.

Unfortunately, even with the best planned and coordinated short sea shipping system, there is a need for government subsidies, at least in the startup period.  The European Commission has addressed this need with the Marco Polo program.  The Marco Polo program provides grants in the following areas :

  1. Modal shifts from road to rail and waterborne systems
  2. Catalyst actions which promote modal shift
  3. Motorways of the sea between major ports
  4. Traffic avoidance
  5. Common learning actions

The Marco Polo budget between 2007 and 2013 was close to $590 million – not extravagant on an annual basis.  It is however impressive, in that the monies are in the form of grants, not loans to be repaid.

The U.S. Maritime Administration and Mr. Matsuda do not have to reinvent the wheel.  The framework of a viable maritime policy and specifically, a shortsea shipping policy exists and could be implemented in relatively short order.  The possibility of long term job creation and energy savings should be enough to make the current Administration and representatives of any Congressional district with a navigable waterway salivate.  The subsidies involved would appear to be relatively small in comparison to the overall transportation budget.  So, in the end, the question remains – Why do we not have a comprehensive Marine Highway system in the U.S.?

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