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America’s Marine Highway Report to Congress

Posted by Content Coordinator on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011



America’s Marine Highway system accommodates the waterborne movement of passengers and non-bulk freight between origins and destinations otherwise served solely by roads and railways. Its corridors run parallel to many of the nation’s most important land-based routes and connectors. These corridors are important components of the nation’s broader domestic marine transportation system, which consists of 25,320 miles of navigable waterways, including rivers, bays, and channels, and many thousands of additional miles on the Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway System and deep sea routes.

For much of the early history of the United States, the network of waterways was the primary means of interstate commerce and transportation for goods and people. As a result, the majority of America’s large metropolitan areas, as well as the preponderance of the U.S. population, are located along the coasts and navigable waterways. Over time, however, services along these waterways were first supplemented and then largely replaced by rail, road, and air transportation services as our principal means of movement. In fact, while vessels on the U.S. inland river system, Great Lakes, intraport, and coastal areas still move more than one billion tons of freight each year, water services carried only 13 percent of the nation’s ton-miles of domestic freight in 2007 – down from more than 26 percent in 1965.

Inadequacy of Our Transportation System for Future Needs

It has become increasingly evident that the current system of freight transportation in the United States will be hard-pressed to meet the nation’s future transportation needs with regard to maintaining national economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability, public safety, and emergency preparedness. Freight tonnage of all types, including exports, imports, and domestic shipments, is expected to grow 73 percent by 2035 from 2008 levels. Land-based infrastructure expansion opportunities are limited in many critical bottleneck areas due to geography or very high right-of-way acquisition costs, particularly in urban areas where surface traffic congestion is the most severe. In many locations, existing infrastructure is suffering from overuse and will place growing demands on scarce public and private resources simply to sustain it. Accordingly, traffic congestion will almost certainly worsen significantly if the reliance on road and rail is not reduced.

The nation’s heavy reliance on truck transportation for the movement of domestic freight (twothirds of all domestic freight tonnage was moved by truck in 2008) has also contributed to the nation’s dependence on petroleum. Truck transportation uses significantly more fuel per ton-mile of freight moved than does water or rail. The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) reports that energy use by the transportation sector will continue to grow through the year 2035, and that freight trucks will account for the largest share (38 percent) of this growth.

The nation is committed to curbing its GHG emissions, of which transportation is second only to electricity generation as a source. USDOE projects that GHG emissions from all transportation sources will increase by 195 million metric tons (10 percent) as of 2035 compared to 2008, of which 59 percent of the increase will be attributable to growth in heavy truck emissions. However, some of the projected growth in both truck energy consumption and GHG emissions is likely to be curtailed through a regulatory initiative recently announced by the President. In particular, the President directed EPA and USDOT to take steps to reduce GHG emissions and fuel consumption by developing the first-ever GHG and fuel economy standards for medium-and heavy-duty trucks, in an announcement made on May 21, 2010.

USDOT reports that approximately 5,000 fatalities per year were associated with heavy truck crashes over the last two decades (fatalities fell to just over 4,200 in 2008, however). Whereas USDOT, other agencies, and the industry are working hard to improve the safety of heavy vehicles, there are inherent dangers caused by the mixed operation of light and heavy vehicles in the same traffic streams. Our transportation system’s current reliance on land-based transportation modes also creates potential safety problems involving the movement of hazardous materials through urban and residential areas. Although both water and land-based systems are vulnerable to major disruptions due to damage to key structures such as bridges and channels caused by natural or man-made disasters, the redundancy created by Marine Highways can help mitigate the disruptive impact of those events.

America’s Marine Highway offers a cost-effective means to improve the economic efficiency, environmental sustainability, public safety and security, and resiliency of our transportation system. It also employs ships and mariners, providing jobs in peacetime and human and capital resources to deploy in time of war or natural disaster. Demand for ships to operate on Marine Highway corridors will also provide new business at the nation’s commercial shipyards.

To date, the potential of America’s Marine Highway to mitigate problems in the surface transportation system is not being met. As of December 2010, MARAD, which administers the America’s Marine Highway program for USDOT, was monitoring only 32 Marine Highway and related domestic waterborne freight services that move containers and trailers. These and other marine transportation services moved approximately 2.05 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) of loaded domestic containers and trailers10 in 2008, of which just 11 percent (by weight) were moved in the contiguous domestic trades that compete with land-based transportation modes. These 230,000 TEU compare to 3.85 million intermodal domestic rail container movements (consisting of containers and trailers ranging from 20 to 53 feet in length) in 2008; highway domestic-only movements, which are difficult to measure accurately, would be much higher. USDOT believes that the full benefits of America’s Marine Highway can only be realized if they are recognized, correctly valued, and facilitated within a comprehensive national freight strategy.


Download full version (PDF): America’s Marine Highway Report to Congress

About the Maritime Administration
“The Maritime Administration is the agency within the U.S. Department of
Transportation dealing with waterborne transportation. Its programs
promote the use of waterborne transportation and its seamless
integration with other segments of the transportation system, and the
viability of the U.S. merchant marine. The Maritime Administration works
in many areas involving ships and shipping, shipbuilding, port
operations, vessel operations, national security, environment, and

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