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Are ‘marine highways’ the answer to traffic congestion?

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A Norfolk Tug loads freight in Richmond, Va. to bring to a port in Norfolk, Va. The service may be bolstered by a new initiative by Congress to ease traffic congestion by moving some cargo onto water. (Photo courtesy of Norfolk Tug)

Looking out onto the water from his home in the old fishing town of Gloucester, Mass., John Curtis Perry sees a stark winter coast. Gone are the tugboats and barges that he feels once gave this swath of shoreline its seaside romance.

But Perry, a Tufts University maritime history professor who has studied coastal shipping, envisions a line of cargo ships moving down the coast, freeing up roads and shortening his commute.

His vision may become reality. The federal government is working to turn the country’s coastal areas, intracoastal waterways, lakes and rivers into a network for transit and travel that it calls “America’s Marine Highway.”

Proponents of the marine highway—who include academics, transportation planners and the shipping industry—believe it will fight gridlock, improve air quality and create jobs throughout the country. But some groups think there hasn’t been enough research to prove environmental benefits.

Congress created America’s Marine Highway program in December 2007 as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Since then, the federal Department of Transportation and its sub-agency, the Maritime Administration, have been working on executing it. Officials expect to announce the final rules soon and then start accepting proposals from private companies and local governments who want help develop shipping corridors that would take traffic away from some of the most gridlocked highways.

Gaining project approval means getting help from the DOT in navigating state and local requirements and standards. Though the marine highway program itself receives no money, the DOT will help approved projects find start-up funding from private sources and from state and local agencies that may want to divert funds to build and improve things like ports, ships and shipyards.

The program’s main goal is to remove traffic from land, mostly trucks carrying freight. U.S. commuters lost an estimated 4.2 billion hours and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel in 2007 because of road congestion, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Unless more effort is made to ship goods by rail and water, roads in the future will be further choked. The Federal Highway Administration has projected that in 15 years the number of trucks on the road could double.

“Congestion on our nation’s highways is increasing air pollution and decreasing the speed of delivery of goods and the amount of goods that a trucker can move annually,” Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and a vocal supporter of the marine highway, said by e-mail.

Oberstar, who tried unsuccessfully to get $55 million in funding for the project through the economic stimulus package, intends to submit another bid to Congress for funding for construction loans for ship and port-builders.

“Marine highways can play a vital role in addressing these problems, because waterborne transportation is a cost-effective and efficient means of transporting goods to and from businesses across the nation,” he said.

One company is already putting the act into practice. Congestion on Interstate 64, the primary corridor for shipping goods and making trips to Virginia Beach, led to one of the first private freight services created with DOT guidance since the act passed. That service, 64 Express, was launched in December and currently consists of one tugboat that makes weekly trips shuttling freight between Richmond and Norfolk, Va., on the James River.

Over three years, the tug should remove 58,000 trucks from nearby Interstate 64 and nearby Hampton Boulevard, said Edward Whitmore, president of Norfolk Tug, the company that runs 64 Express.

The service took about a year to get off the ground, with a pledge of $2.3 million in funding over three years from local government. But that’s nothing compared to the $400 million that widening the highway would cost, according to Barbara Nelson, Richmond’s principal transportation planner.

Officials originally considered enlarging the road and raised the requisite funds in initial pledges. Yet with the economic downturn, the project hasn’t gone beyond a $5 million engineering study.

“The water exists, it’s just a matter of using it,” Nelson said. “That was very attractive to us.”

Peter Drakos, a 25-year maritime lawyer, started a shipping company called Coastal Connect after the act was passed. Drakos is working on creating “green” ships that burn compressed natural gas.

“We’ve got to be green because that's what sells,” he said, “to Congress, to Walmart.” Most shipping is greener than trucking, he said. “I think everybody realizes it’s got to happen.”

Coastal Connect’s cargo vessels are still in the design phase, and Drakos hopes they’ll be finished within three years. He intends to run the ships from New Jersey to parts of New England, a route that he feels beats the road because it avoids bottlenecks at the George Washington Bridge and other high-traffic areas.

The study that Tufts professor Perry directed, “America’s Deep Blue Highway,” supports Drakos’ contention. It lists a cargo ship’s carbon dioxide emissions per ton, per kilometer, at less than half of those from a heavy truck with trailer.

But senior policy analyst Eric Skelton and his colleagues at Northeast States Center for a Clean Air Future, an air quality nonprofit association that covers New England, New York and New Jersey, don’t think there’s been enough research to prove that increased shipping would actually help the congestion or the environment. The organization filed a comment on the DOT’s proposed plan, asking for the department to perform a specific environmental analysis on the act and delay any final ruling.

“We want it to be a well-thought out process. Yes, you could see some improvement in congestion on the corridors, like the I-95 corridor,” Skelton said of the marine highway. “But you could be moving congestion problems to other areas.”

E-mail: lmr2154@columbia.edu