AWO says container barge service is a hard sell

Despite the collision that led to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, eliminating a vital North/South highway link on Baltimore’s I-95 corridor, moving containerized truckloads off of roads and on to waterborne transportation remains a challenge.

The container on barge concept also known as the “Marine Highway” continues to be a hard sell because logistics companies do not want to move boxes by water, according to Brian Vahey, Vice President – Atlantic Region, The American Waterways Operators (AWO).

Container Barge Challenge

Vahey told AJOT in an interview: “One of … the challenges is coming … from … logistics companies … Just to use Amazon as an example, they have a set way in which they are used to getting products delivered.”

Vahey explained: “I think a lot of the logistics companies have developed business models that they’re used to … Some of our companies have broached the issue with … companies about doing these transits by barge … It's … an uphill climb just because on the logistics side of things, people … have a process that they're used to. So, I think… the challenge is kind of breaking … through that. And I think in some cases, it … can … take a little bit of time to demonstrate that … a container by barge service is going to be economically … viable.”

One successful operation has been the Norfolk to Richmond Virginia tug/barge service that is estimated to take 120,000 trucks off Virginia’s I-64 highway a year. The service does receive a subsidy but has been effective reducing congestion on I-64: “The Norfolk tug that … operates a container by barge service on the … James River has … been very successful. But it's taken a little bit of time working with the … Port of Richmond to … make that a success. The James River container by barge route is subsidized.”

Other Operational Challenges

In terms of AWO’s priorities for 2024, “I think we are on … the national level focused on sexual assault … sexual harassment issues … That's obviously become a … focus of the Coast Guard. We at AWO certainly want to do everything we can to help ensure that people … who go to work on a tugboat, whether it's on the vessel itself or at the shoreside office, are safe.”

One growth area for the tug and barge industry is offshore wind where both Foss and Crowley are developing new businesses transporting wind turbine components: “A lot of what we're seeing right now as far as tug and barge activity on offshore wind is … up in New England … Foss has an operation out of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Crowley is … developing port infrastructure to support offshore wind in Salem, Massachusetts. A lot … of what you are seeing right now is … the transportation of wind turbine components via … barge.”

Another challenge the industry is facing is attracting younger people to crew tug and tow boats. Historically the industry relied on family members but there are less and less young people willing to follow in their footsteps: “A challenge attracting young people is they don’t like the idea of what a tugboat schedule would entail. … I've heard members say that's a challenge. … I think a lot of our … member companies have relied on … family connections. You go to work on a tugboat because a parent or a grandparent … had worked on a tugboat … it's become … difficult for … companies to … recruit reliably and consistently … in that way. So, … one of the things that we've … been trying to do is work with … colleges.”

One successful program is at Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) located at Castine, Maine: “What Maine has done is they have a working tugboat that has been donated to them. They also have an old transportation barge. And I was … able to go out and visit them and see students that are taking this lab … going up alongside the barge and … doing the sorts of maneuvers that … you need to … be able to do if you're going (to) drive a tugboat.”

There has been a particular focus on recruiting from maritime schools: “There are a number of maritime academies all across the country … our members are finding … that if … you recruit someone who comes … from a maritime college, they're not necessarily looking for a career on a … tugboat or towboat. They are looking for a career on a larger vessel. They want go to sea. And so, what we have been trying to do is … work with some maritime colleges to develop … a career program … for young people who are specifically interested in working on a tugboat.”

Another priority is better relations with the U.S. Coast Guard: “Coming up with … ways to … work with the Coast Guard … that's an important partnership for us. And you know, doing everything we can to help make that partnership strong and that is a focus of ours in 2024. And so, one of our members had given me an opportunity to go up to Sector Boston, which (was) hosting an industry day, so kind of a meet and greet for port stakeholders. This is a kind of cool thing that the Coast Guard does.”


Decarbonization is another priority: “I would be remiss in not mentioning … decarbonization and the push there … our members want to … do everything that they can to … lower their carbon footprint. Our members really do take a lot of pride in … maritime being the most environmentally efficient, friendly mode of … freight transportation. And … yeah, to answer your question, I … think our members are always interested in exploring grant opportunities to help … expand their fleet in innovative ways … Crowley with their new battery-powered E Wolf tug …came about through a grant program. Our members are always looking for … those kinds of opportunities. And that's something that we've really tried to hit home in the outreach that we've been doing … on the harbor craft.”

AWO is now more focused on state legislatures and educating state law makers about the importance of the maritime industry: “We have come to recognize that a lot of the rules and regulations and laws that impact towing vessel operators are passed at the state level. And so, we want to be more engaged in that. And a lot of that … is education and promotion helping state lawmakers understand who we are. I think in a lot of cases, you're … kind of helping state lawmakers realize how important maritime is to their state. Maybe that's something that they haven't really given a lot of thought to before.”

Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis


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