With the price of gasoline hovering at $4, a gallon, noxious greenhouse gases threatening our environment and personal health, traffic congestion eating up precious time and choking our highways, while our “to do” list of infrastructure repairs spirals out of control, maybe it’s time for America to “go back to the future” on transportation.

A quick look at the map reminds us that among our nation’s most precious resources is a network of natural and manmade waterways that course through many of the most populous areas of the country.

Could we perhaps rediscover the economic and environmental benefits of moving goods over those waterways the way we once did when our nation was young?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says we can, and should. He is spearheading an initiative to perfect the American Marine Highway—at a very modest cost—to rebalance our transportation infrastructure. The system would augment, not supplant, all existing freight modes—connecting rail, highway and water networks in an integrated system to produce a win-win for producers, shippers and consumers while creating jobs, and reducing pollution and congestion.

For a relatively modest $50 million investment, the side effects would be an easing of traffic congestion, reduction in highway accidents and injuries (truck accidents are responsible for 5,000 fatalities and 148,000 serious injuries a year), pronounced reduction in greenhouse gas production, new job opportunities in maritime and shipbuilding, and a substantial expansion in transportation capacity.

The economic benefits of the American Marine Highway are compelling. Most U.S. domestic freight now moves over highways. Annually, waterborne freight accounts for about half as volume much as railroads and about 25% as much as highway. Highway shipping creates ten times the pollution that waterborne freight creates; rails generate one-third more than ships.

A truck can carry a ton of freight 156 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel; trains can  carry that same ton of freight 413 miles on one gallon of diesel; a barge and tug operation will move that same ton 576 miles on that same gallon of fuel.

Highway transportation results in an annual average of six times more fatalities, and over 17 times more injuries than rail, while the fatality and injury rates for waterborne freight are minimal.  Congestion delays in waterborne transport are too negligible to measure; congestion delays on the highway cost some $10.86 per million ton miles; a ratio roughly 20 times greater than with rail.

According to the federal Maritime Administration, the U.S. will have to invest $47 billion annually for the next 30 years just to accommodate growing transportation needs along the east coast I-95 corridor, but only $50 million to upgrade Atlantic Coast ports to get the same result.

There is one other investment consideration associated with beefing up waterborne freight movement—shipbuilding. DOT estimates that large scale expansion of coastwise maritime trade will require the construction of up to 1,000 new roll-on roll off vessels. That is an investment that a burgeoning short sea shipping system industry should be more than happy to make with the expectation of a very healthy return on investment as the business expands. For the nation, the prospect of creating 600 good paying jobs to build every one of those 1,000 new ships, what’s not to like?

As luck would have it, that shipbuilding opportunity comes at the very time that one of the nation’s most experienced shipyards—Avondale in New Orleans—faces the prospect of orphan hood as its parent company, Huntington Ingalls, plans to shut it down and take a $300 million taxpayer funded payoff from the Navy for doing so.

The European union has a 20-year head start on us in rebalancing transportation modes. Their experience has resulted in quadrupling the volume of freight moved through its waterways. Waterborne shipments within the EU now account for 40% of shipping by volume.

So, as people are rediscovering bicycling; as cities experience population resurgence spurred by folks who don’t relish sitting hours in traffic to get to work; as trolley lines reappear on those same city streets; America may be on the verge of discovering that the keys to our future may lie in the lessons of our past.
MARAD AMH Report to Congress
GAO Surface Freight Transport

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