By  on October 7, 2008

Researchers are trying to determine how to make better use of U.S. coastal waters to transport goods because of rising oil prices and a withering transit infrastructure.

A team of experts from the Institute of Global Maritime Studies and Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy issued a report last week examining the potential benefits of shifting freight from crowded roadways on the East, Gulf and West Coasts to coastal seas. The report, “America’s Deep Blue Highway: How Coastal Shipping Could Reduce Traffic Congestion, Lower Pollution and Bolster National Security,” focuses on the premise that the transportation system is approaching a crisis point.

“We have a 19th-century rail network, a 20th-century highway system and 21st-century transportation gridlock looming on the near horizon,” according to the study, which is the result of a year of research. “We must return to the sea to get freight moving. The now-underused deep blue highway could provide resilience and improve the environmental performance of the nation’s transportation system. Coastal shipping could complement, not compete with, trucking and rail.”

The researchers said rail and road transport systems along the coasts are reaching capacity. The cost of maintaining and bringing them up to date would be so high — an estimated $155.5 billion a year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers — that raising the necessary capital would likely require partnerships between public and private groups. The study said developing a system that allows for trucks to roll on boats at smaller coastal ports, sail around high-traffic metropolitan areas and then roll off closer to their destinations, would require minimal investment.

“Unless federal, state and local policy makers discover a new way to boost capacity of coastal interstate highways and rail networks, increased traffic congestion will translate into reduced fuel efficiency and higher emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter from land-based trucking and passenger cars,” the report said.

The study’s assessment of the nation’s roads and bridges is dire. The infrastructure is characterized as “dangerously brittle,” with 26 percent of the 600,000 bridges classified as “deficient to functionally obsolete.” The collapse of the I-35 Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis in August 2007, which killed 13 people, brought the issue to light, but similar disasters have been narrowly avoided. In March, a six-foot crack in a support pillar was found on I-95 in Philadelphia. The crack showed that a three-mile section of the road was on the verge of collapse.

Most bridges are also handling far more traffic than their design intended. The Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, which spans the Quinnipiac River in New Haven, Conn., opened in 1958 and was designed to handle 90,000 vehicles a day. By 2006, the average annual daily traffic exceeded 150,000 and is expected to crest at 200,000 by 2035. The average annual daily traffic for the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey, one of the busiest bridges and the gateway to the Northeast, is more than 300,000 vehicles. The last time the bridge was modified was in 1962, when a lower deck was added.

The report points to coastal shipping — transporting goods and vehicles between ports by sea — as an almost unused mode of transportation. According to the report, the U.S. moves a scant 2 percent of domestic freight by sea in the lower 48 states. In comparison, Europe ships more than 40 percent of its freight via coastal waters. The European Union is investing 450 million euros, or about $607 million at current exchange, to encourage shippers to move more freight from highways to coastal shipping routes.

One of the hurdles that has contributed to the lack of interest in coastal shipping is the Jones Act, which Congress passed in 1920, requiring all ships engaged in coastal shipping to be U.S. built, owned and staffed. Developing a fleet of Jones Act vessels would be a slow and costly process, but one that the researchers believe could be an opportunity to spur manufacturing and environmental innovation.

Ships are considerably more efficient energy users than trucks, especially if powered by alternative fuels. The report calls on the U.S. shipbuilding industry to develop a fleet of environmentally friendly ships that run on natural gas or low-sulfur diesel. The change to new fuel types would require revamping fuel facilities at some 113 ports along the coasts, a far easier task than what would be required to change the fueling methods of trucks at thousands of gas stations across the country. The researchers seem to favor natural gas, noting that it cuts out oil consumption and results in no visible smoke or emissions of lead, sulfur oxide and other particulate matter that have been linked to lung illnesses.

“Natural gas offers a win-win for coastal shipping enterprises, coastal communities and the nation,” the study said.

Most ports are already equipped to handle roll-on, roll-off coastal shipping. The report found that a typical East Coast port would require a $5 million investment, but it is hoped that the government could jump-start the program with an initial $150 million. Those funds would go toward preparing piers, truck-staging lots and access ramps. The report notes that $150 million is roughly the same amount of money spent to construct 20 miles of expressway.

“We currently spend more than $40 billion per year on highways,” the reportsaid. “It would take a fraction of that amount to jump-start coastal shipping.”

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