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The US Could Learn from the EU’s Short Sea Policies

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 16:39

By Tony Munoz, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, The Maritime Executive

The European short sea shipping network has been an enormous catalyst in building the world’s most efficient and environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure over the last two decades. The vision and foresight – not to mention the political will it took to move the project forward – was unprecedented, and the commitment of stakeholders from across the EU countries will provide benefits for generations to come.

Motorways of the Sea

Today, the Motorways of the Sea, as it is known in the EU-27, is a major component of the transportation infrastructure supporting a huge and diverse economy, second only to the U.S. The unified effort of eliminating borders, dealing with regional congestion and environmental issues, and integrating the various economies and cultures of the EU serves as a powerful example of what can be done through co-ordinated and centralized government policy to strengthen long-term prosperity.

The strategy of establishing dozens of marketing offices to engage stakeholders at the local level and educate them about the benefits of a regional system of multi-modalism was brilliantly orchestrated from the beginning. It recognized that an integrated transportation network was essential to a strong and unified economy that could compete on a global scale with the other regional superpowers of the world – North America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East & Africa, Central & South America – and, at the same time, serve future generations. Programs like Marco Polo I & II, which incentivized users to join the system, were positive measures that pushed the short-sea agenda forward.

There were other benefits as well. The Baltic Sea, with the largest density of vessels in the world, became the world’s first ECA (Emission Control Area), instituting strict emission-control standards that drastically reduced the volume of greenhouse gasses. Because of the EU’s progressive views on environmental issues, the Motorways of the Sea program has benefited both the environment and the economy.

America’s Marine Highway – Fact or Fiction?

Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have an effective maritime policy beyond general rulemaking for its EEZ. Recently, the Department of Transportation was awarded an additional $1.4 billion to its $98.5 billion budget for 2013. The Obama Administration provided an additional $492 billion over five years (2014-2018) for planes, trucks and rail. Unfortunately, when it came to shipping, the Administration gave the Maritime Administration (MARAD) a paltry $433 million for its 2013 budget.

What is even more troubling is, with all the years of studies and analyses showing the benefits of short sea shipping on America’s 96,000 miles of coastline and 22,000 miles of inland waterways, there is still no federal policy on development of America’s Marine Highway. In fact, the Administration has tabled discussions about maritime initiatives until 2017, which essentially means maritime policies will wait until the next administration takes office.

But the U.S. cannot wait as there are more than 15.5 million trucks on the nation’s highways that log more than 450 billion miles a year. Gridlock annually costs the U.S. economy about $80 billion, and Americans spend 4.5 billion hours stuck in traffic each year. Most urban areas have failing grades for smog, and another 60,000 people will die this year due to illnesses brought on by pollution.

No Lack of Funding…

Today, the Inland Waterways Trust Fund – funded by a user tax on fuel oil – has about $100 million sitting idle because Congress will not release it to rehabilitate the 191 locks and 238 lock chambers that support about 11,000 miles of inland waterways. Furthermore, there is over $7 billion sitting in the Harbor Maintenance Tax Fund, paid for by a user fee on the value of a ship’s cargo and intended for dredging and maintaining the 360 commercial ports in the U.S.

Capitol Hill is gridlocked, and policies about spending on maritime infrastructure are on hold. What will the U.S. do when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in early 2015? U.S. port authorities are privately investing as are vessel operators. But there is no leadership from Washington.

Here is a golden opportunity for the U.S. to follow the European example and provide incentives for the building of a hub-and-spoke system that would take containers from 12,000-TEU post-Panamax vessels and transfer them to smaller freighters or barges that could then transport them up and down the coast or into the interior. One small freighter or barge can displace hundreds of trucks and the attendant pollution and congestion.

… But a Lack of Leadership

As it is, while ports like Miami and Charleston and New York are busy deepening their channels and installing giant cranes to handle the increased container traffic from an expanded Panama Canal, there is no such equivalent activity at the smaller ports that dot America’s inland waterways. Nor does the U.S. have a fleet of feeder ships to carry the containers inland, presenting another opportunity for government policies that would encourage the building of such vessels, much as the EU did.

With the example of the EU to guide us, the way forward for America’s Marine Highway seems clear. Unfortunately, the political will seems to be lacking along with the necessary leadership in Washington. Hopefully, it is not too late.