By Tom Fontaine, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Eighteen newly designated “highways” in the United States, including one between Pittsburgh and Kansas City will never get potholes.
They’re inland waterways, and the government hopes their increased use will reduce traffic congestion, pollution, transportation costs and other problems associated with overcrowding on roads and bridges. The designations, made this spring, could help the region secure federal grants for critical infrastructure and development projects.
“These grants will help a long overlooked means of transporting goods finally grow,” said David T. Matsuda, administrator of the Maritime Administration.
The new marine highways include some of the nation’s busiest rivers, coastal corridors, ports, lakes and canals.
The Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill., is part of the new M-70 marine highway corridor. It includes the Mississippi River, from Cairo to just north of St. Louis; and the Missouri River, from the St. Louis area to Kansas City. It gets its name from Interstate 70, the major traditional highway that cuts through the region.
According to Maritime Administration documents, freight-truck bottlenecks occur frequently in the corridor’s largest cities, including Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Louisville, St. Louis and Kansas City. Studies show congestion is worsening. Rail congestion is another issue, particularly around Kansas City and St. Louis.
Maritime Administration spokeswoman Cheron Victoria Wicker said the corridor’s waterways can alleviate traffic headaches by becoming an alternative for all or part of a cargo shipment’s journey.
“Water transportation, when done properly, can move thousands of trucks off the highway, significantly reduce the energy required to do so, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the costly highway maintenance expense associated with large truck wear and tear,” Wicker said.
To date, $59 million in federal money has been dedicated to the marine highway program — $7 million of which was awarded last month to projects across the country.
The money went toward buying or modifying barges to help spur increased water traffic between Brownsville, Texas, and Manatee, Fla., in the Gulf Coast region; in Virginia; and between Mobile, Ala., and northern Mississippi. In one project, barges will be owned by a port authority and leased to a private company at a low rate; in another, they will be owned by a private company under the condition that they must be turned over if they stop providing services described in the application.
No money went to the Pittsburgh region or the M-70 corridor, though Port of Pittsburgh Commission Executive Director James McCarville said the region applied for $35 million to bring wireless broadband technology to vessels that use the river. It could help reduce congestion, improve safety and make companies more productive, he said.
Wicker said applications for the remaining $52 million in funding are under review and could be awarded soon. No money for the marine highway program is included in President Obama’s 2011 budget, but Wicker said existing grant programs “may provide considerable additional resources.”
“Nationwide, (the money) doesn’t go very far, but this program is clearly a step in the right direction,” McCarville said.
However, McCarville said, aging locks and dams remain the “elephant in the room” with regard to river traffic in this region.
Although the new federal program is aimed at increasing shipping on waterways, McCarville said his primary concern is figuring out how to “preserve marine traffic we have now, with the condition of our locks and dams.”
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