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Waterways transport emerges as freight solution

AN older idea is experiencing a rebirth thanks to the truck traffic that increasingly chokes America's highways: shift more of US freight burden to boats that can traverse rivers, lakes, canals and coastal waters.

Increased concerns about fuel prices and global warming in recent years have revived interest in marine highways from the Erie Canal to the Chesapeake Bay to the coastal waters off Oregon, Massachusetts and Texas.

Proponents envision further expansion of the country's 40,230 kilometers of navigational waterways by making greater use of coasts and inland routes, such as the St Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But a significant expansion of the marine highway system faces several obstacles.

Many locks haven't been updated in decades to accommodate increased freight traffic. Replacing America's lock system would cost an estimated US$125 billion.

A harbor maintenance tax that can add US$100 or more on an international cargo container shipped domestically by water is not collected on cargo moved by trucks or rail, or on US exports.

The scarcity of US ships to serve domestic ports along short-sea routes is blamed on a federal law that limits shipping between domestic ports to US-built vessels whose crews are at least 75 percent American, a restriction intended to protect US shipbuilders.


Despite these infrastructure and regulatory constraints, entrepreneurs are charting a way forward, one tugboat trip at a time.

Ed Whitmore spent 11 years on Wall Street before returning to his native Virginia six years ago for the rough-and-tumble life of a tugboat operator. He took a "broken down, beat-up company" with one belching tug and grew Norfolk Tug Co into a fleet of 10.

With the help of a US$2.3-million federal grant, Norfolk Tug has made once-a-week runs up the James River since December last year, delivering cargo from oceangoing vessels to the Port of Richmond.

Each container loaded on a barge removes one truck from the 90-mile stretch along Interstate 64 highway. Whitmore says his business removes about 4,000 trucks each year.

"It's important to drive an initiative like this forward," said Whitmore.

The "64 Express" already has captured a tiny piece of packaging maker MeadWestvaco Corp's huge shipping portfolio. Large rolls of paper from its Covington mill in far western Virginia are trucked to the Port of Richmond and Whitmore's barges for export from the coast.

Law makers from coastal states and along likely inland routes such as the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes favor short-sea shipping as a means to development and job creation.

"When we're trying to save energy, reduce pollution and take some of the clutter off our highways, it makes sense to do it," said Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.


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