Last month, a massive accident on I-95 in Connecticut stopped traffic for 20 hours. Three people died, 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled, and tens of thousands of Boston and New York commuters experienced traffic delays.
The accident – which involved a diesel tanker truck, a tractor-trailer, and four cars – was a tragic loss of life. It also brought a key economic corridor to a grinding halt. And it illustrated the fragility of America's interstate highway system.
If US roads can be disrupted by a traffic accident, imagine the fallout of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or bridge collapse. This is especially relevant as tens of millions of Americans prepare to make long drives for the holidays.
America must reduce interstate congestion, especially by trucks whose freight can become dangerous in traffic accidents. Let's try an alternative: Coastal shipping.
Coastal shipping has the potential to strengthen the resilience of America's transportation system – an important national security objective. It can also provide substantial environmental benefits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union, which moves 40 percent of its internal freight by sea, provides an example of how much America stands to gain.
The US Maritime Administration estimates that a typical barge can handle 456 containers whereas the same amount of cargo requires 228 double-stacked rail cars or 456 tractor-trailers. Studies have shown that coastal shipping could be three times more efficient at transporting cargo than long-haul trucking is. This is particularly true along the I-95 corridor between Massachusetts and Florida, where many smaller ports enjoy excellent yet underutilized access to the sea around clogged highways.
Another reason to encourage coastal shipping is America's looming transportation crisis. Consider these staggering yet unheralded statistics: By 2020, the volume of US freight traffic on the road is expected to increase by as much as 70 percent; sections of the I-95 corridor are projected to see daily truck traffic rise from 32,000 trucks in 2004 to more than 58,000 in 2020.
America's roads are already clogged, and our rail infrastructure is nearing capacity – with no major improvement projects in sight. We need more, cheaper, and better ways of moving freight and people along our coasts.
As Florida's Congressman David Weldon (R) has noted in an April 2007 hearing about how shipping is greener than land-based alternatives, "We cannot pave our way out of this challenge."
How can policymakers encourage coastal shipping? As a first step, they should allocate funding to add facilities in smaller ports that would serve domestic shipping lines. This would help create a level playing field for coastal shipping to compete with land transportation.
Coastal shipping would also supplement the trucking and freight-rail industries, given the projected growth of traffic along the coasts. Trucking companies already have trouble finding qualified drivers for long-haul routes. Coastal shipping would provide another means to carry long-distance freight, easing the shortage of long-haul drivers and opening the way for more short-haul trucking opportunities.
The economic benefits would multiply: Merchant mariners and port workers would benefit from more coastal shipping. A healthier transportation system would promote job growth in the rail, trucking, and logistics sectors. It would lower costs to producers and consumers and improve America's overall economic competitiveness.
To this end, Congress should pass the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007. The bill provides funding and a mandate for the US Department of Transportation to establish a coastal shipping program. Congress should also support the Blue Water Highway Act of 2007, which removes the harbor-maintenance tax for certain cargoes shipped between US ports. This wouldremove an unfair barrier that undermines the ability of coastal shipping to compete with trucking and rail for long-haul domestic freight.
America is endowed with fortuitous geography – a network of protected bays, harbors, and inlets near our major population centers – to carry goods in the most economical and environmentally efficient way. Let's seize the opportunities our geography presents.