By Leo Ryan, AJOT

A think-tank based in Gloucester, Massachusetts has urged the United States to emulate Europe by making much wider use of “motorways of the sea.”

The survey released early this fall by the Institute for Global Maritime Studies underlined the potential economic, environmental and national security benefits of increased US coastal shipping.

One of the authors of the report indicated the study team was not able to estimate potential coastal volumes due to significant flaws in available data on freight movements.

Over the past few years, the federal transport departments in the US, Canada and Mexico have launched regular high-level consultations to foster short-sea shipping in North America.

“Coastal shipping could complement, not compete with, trucking and rail,” the report said, adding that this was “especially critical given current pressures on the trucking industry such as rising fuel costs and labor shortages.”

“The US today moves by sea an almost negligible two percent of domestic freight among the lower 48 states,” the report said.

“In stark contrast, Europe ships over 40% of its domestic freight along motorways of the sea,” declared the report entitled America’s Deep Blue Highway: How Coastal Shipping Could Reduce Traffic Congestion, Lower Pollution, and Bolster National Security.The report notes that the European Union has budgeted 450 million euros to stimulate coastal shipping. It recommends that the US allocate at least $150 million in federal funds in prospective coastal shipping ports.

The report echoes short-sea shipping advocates in the Great Lakes region in particular by demanding the elimination of the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) under which a levy of 0.125% is assessed on the value of goods moving through US ports to finance dredging operations.

Proposed legislation to exempt the HMT for general cargo transferred between points within the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River is still awaiting approval in Congress. Several years ago, the HMT was ruled to be “unconstitutional” on exports.

The report contends that the HMT unfairly burdens coastal shipping because shallow draft coastal vessels do not require port dredging. The HMT Trust fund is currently running a $4 billion surplus that is expected to attain $8 billion by 2011.

The document affirms that short-sea shipping is good for national security by adding “resiliency to a brittle American transportation system.” It could notably provide alternatives to Interstate highways parallel to the coast that might be disrupted if, for example, tunnels or bridges were destroyed.

The report declares that short-sea shipping could revitalize cities with underutilized ports, reduce highway congestion, and provide alternative routes for movement of hazardous materials.

Other recommendations include the promotion of alternative fuels for coastal shipping, preserve industrial ports in short supply that will become more important as highway congestion increases, and encourage the US shipbuilding industry “to re-invent itself by building a new fleet of environmentally-friendly coastal ships.”