Short Sea Shipping the Wave of the Future?

Short Sea Shipping the Wave of the Future?
Changes in Industry Could Boost Local Ports
By Joe Cohen, Standard-Times Staff Writer

Capt. Pat Welch pilots the New England Fast Ferry while Kristin Decas provides a descriptive narrative of New Bedford Harbor for the vessel’s passengers. The growing use of short sea shipping could soon make the city’s harbor a much busier place. Mike Valeri/The Standard-Times

A “perfect storm of opportunity” could drive the East Coast to embrace short sea shipping and put ports such as New Bedford and Fall River back on the map as significant players in moving cargo up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
Climate change and transportation issues, including the push to cut emissions and rising fuel prices, could combine with the re-emergence of cities as sought-after places to live, spinning up the “perfect storm of opportunity,” according to Douglas I. Foy, former state secretary of Commonwealth Development.
Mr. Foy was speaking at a Short Sea Shipping Symposium last week at UMass Dartmouth.
Short sea shipping is a waterborne transportation system that does not cross an ocean. At the UMass conference, it was defined as freight moved in tractor-trailers carried long distances on water on specially made barges or ships. Short sea shipping advocates say it cuts costs, saves massive amounts of energy and dramatically reduces pollution. It has been widely used in Europe for years, and there is already some short sea shipping activity in the United States.
Mr. Foy has a longtime background in environmental advocacy and is a partner in Serrafix, a Boston company seeking to mitigate climate change and overhaul energy policy.
Richard S. Armstrong, executive secretary of the Massachusetts Governor’s Seaport Advisory Council, said short sea shipping could be under way in New Bedford and Fall River within two years.
It could mean hundreds of jobs and many millions of dollars to the economy of a port city like New Bedford, officials said.
Mr. Armstrong said he has looked at 33 small East Coast ports as potential short sea shipping terminals and New Bedford and Fall River have outstanding characteristics.
Ideally, Mr. Armstrong said, a port in New England would be “paired” with another port, such as Port Canaveral in Florida.
In studying “port pairings,” he looked at Port Canaveral and Wilmington, N.C., among others, and said there could be service between Florida and New England within two years.
Mr. Armstrong said the ports of New Bedford and Fall River have strong advantages, such as being small and flexible with infrastructure in place.
New Bedford Port Director Kristin Decas said the harbor has relatively low congestion and 30-foot depths. In addition to increasing use of the harbor and creating jobs, Ms. Decas said, short sea shipping through New Bedford would support industry in the region and put the area on the “front end” of supply chains for products.
She said a number of things would have to be done to prepare the harbor for short sea shipping, including involving the community, setting up a state-of-the-art terminal for roll-on, roll-off trailers and making certain other infrastructure was ready.
The UMass conference last week attracted about 60 attendees, including federal, state and local government officials, consultants, lawyers and environmental activists, along with a smattering of people from the shipping industry. Ports in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were represented.
Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, who opened the symposium, said “cost effective and efficient transportation” is critical to economic competitiveness, and short sea shipping is an opportunity to “look at things differently” and to “get trucks off the road.”
Rockford Weitz and Benjamin Mazzotta of the Fletcher Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University provided preliminary findings of their research on national security, environmental and economic benefits of short sea shipping.
Their findings indicate benefits would include increased productivity, reduced highway maintenance and congestion, cleaner air and safer highways.
Mr. Weitz and Mr. Mazzotta said they believe 20 smaller East Coast ports would lend themselves to short sea shipping and that the total investment in ports for a large-scale program would be $50 million, or no more than $5 million a port. They estimated it would take 200 sea-going vessels, including 177 barges. The cost of the vessels could run into the billions of dollars. They estimate that the short sea shipping business would create 13,000 jobs and at the scale of their estimates would remove 10 percent of the truck traffic from highways in the Northeast.
When congestion on highways gets bad enough, “entrepreneurs will arrive,” they said.
Mr. Armstrong said he believes that if just 7 percent of north-to-south East Coast trailer truck traffic was shifted to short sea shipping, it would produce break-even operations.
Mr. Armstrong said that while short sea shipping barges travel 14 to 16 mph — requiring four days to move from Florida to New England — trucks average only 35 mph. That average is expected to drop to 27 mph as highway congestion intensifies, he said. And, because water travel is typically round-the-clock while truckers take extended breaks off the road, short sea shipping offers competitive timing for delivering freight, even for just-in-time shipments.
In the Tufts research, a short sea shipping program between Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore, using a single barge that carries 456 trailer-like containers was studied. That one barge carries the equivalent of 228 rail cars or 456 trucks. The estimated fuel use of the barge is one-eighth that of trucks.
Paul H. Bea Jr., formerly with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and now a public affairs consultant, said the federal government should provide funding for short sea shipping and suspend the Harbor Maintenance Tax that adds cost to short sea shipping and discourages its use.
Mr. Bea said the U.S. needs a “next generation” policy regarding transportation.
Mr. Foy said that when people learn about the advantages of short sea shipping, “It is an ‘aha’ moment.”
Contact Joe Cohen at
March 31, 2008

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