Will the U.S. embrace short sea?

Short-sea shipping has been popular in Europe for a long time. Not so here in the U.S. But barge companies, state and federal transportation officials, port authorities, shippers and others hope to change that. Their goal is to increase the movement of containers on short-sea routes by making it a viable alternative to hauling boxes via truck and rail on the nation’s already clogged transportation system.


A Maritime Administration report says that future cargo volumes may overwhelm the U.S. surface transportation system, and it may ultimately lead to transportation gridlock.


“The smartest, cheapest and easiest solution to congested truck and rail traffic is an investment in the marine transportation system, to fully integrate waterborne transportation into our nation’s transportation system,” the report said.


There are a few established short-sea services in the U.S. such as between the Port of New York/New Jersey and Albany, N.Y., and Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans. (See story on page 30.)


John Jamian, deputy administrator at Marad, said he hopes that a few high-visibility, successful projects will open the eyes of shippers and others in the business so that they will be encouraged to go out, seek financing, and start up new short-sea services.


Marad is still studying the feasibility of short-sea shipping, but Jamian believes that if 15 to 20 percent of the current highway freight traffic can be diverted to water, “that would be a major milestone.”


Still, the problem with container-on-barge and other short-sea services has been costs and timeliness. Traditionally, it has been tough for operators to make money on these routes while offering regularly scheduled service. But if barge companies could use their dedicated tows and schedules to coincide with container vessel calls, then COB could work. Inland tank barge giant Kirby Corp. is giving it a shot, based on its purchase of a one-third interest in Osprey Line, a Houston-based COB service provider.


Whether Osprey and other short-sea services prove successful in the long run depends on whether an ideal mix of routes, schedules, and capacity can be offered. Most importantly, shippers must be convinced to give it a try.


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