Short sea shipping (S3), the shipping of cargo or goods over relatively short distances or to nearby coastal ports, has many advantages over trucking and rail transport. In addition to reducing road congestion (its greatest benefit), waterborne transport often uses less fuel, costs less, produces less air pollution, is faster, and has greater space capacity as there are extensive shipping lanes.
Despite its many selling points, S3 currently is hampered by a lack of adequate port infrastructure. Historically, rivers such as the Mississippi and Hudson were the primary means of cargo transport before the advent of the now-mature Interstate highway and railway systems shifted commerce from water to land.
Today, aging piers, ferry landings and terminals in port cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston are underutilized but could regain their stature as epicenters of freight activity with the proper redesign to accommodate S3.
The linchpin for revitalization of port facilities is investment dollars. The federal government, in concert with state governments and regional port authorities, must provide adequate funding and legislation to reinvigorate this neglected mode of waterborne commerce. Although the U.S. Maritime Administration has begun a program to foster S3, the initiative provides for only limited direct investment.
To facilitate S3 most efficiently, terminals should be designed for roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ship traffic. RO-RO ships are designed to carry wheeled cargo such as that in trucks as opposed to lift on/lift off (LO-LO) vessels, which use cranes to load and unload cargo.
RO-RO vessels require ramps that allow the cargo to be efficiently rolled on and off the vessel when in port. The ramps must be structurally efficient, adjustable to handle differences in tidal elevation and river flow and able to accommodate ships of various sizes and designs. The ramps can be built into the ships or be shore mounted, depending on the shipper’s needs and route considerations.
To make a terminal RO-RO accessible, berthing facilities for ships with ramps must be developed or rehabilitated. Equally important are roadway modifications and related changes such as:
• Separate, expanded parking facilities for incoming and departing truck traffic;
• Improved road access from the parking areas to highways, including new or modified interchanges and traffic signals;
• Structural improvements for security facilities to account for greater activity in truck terminals;
• Increased support services such as fuel stations and eateries;
• Proper industrial engineering to maximize efficiency.
All else being equal, a slower ship is more fuel-efficient, a six-hour window is better filled with two hours of loading time and four hours of shipping time rather than three hours for each.
S3 is not a new concept. The Alaska Marine Highway, a state-operated ferry service, and SeaBridge Inc., a private ferry service operating along the East and Gulf coasts, successfully incorporate S3 into their menu of transport offerings. Other promising areas for S3 activity include the Pacific Ocean corridor from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles; the Great Lakes; and the Mississippi, especially upon completion of the Panama Canal expansion project in 2014, which will allow passage of larger cargo vessels between Asian ports and the Gulf of Mexico.
Although port space is at a premium in some areas, notably the West Coast, cities with room to develop new port infrastructure like Philadelphia, New York and Boston should optimize space with S3-ready facilities. As federal and state governments and regional port authorities ponder the best uses for remaining undeveloped waterfront property, they strongly need to consider investing in S3-accessible infrastructure.
Establishing a parallel shipping lane is a more cost-effective way to boost the capacity of the country’s freight transportation network—road, rail and marine—than widening highways or extending rail lines. S3 has been sorely neglected as an efficient third mode of cargo transport. Now is the time to put the infrastructure dollar back into our waterways.