New York's plan for boxes on barges shines a light on a neglected form of transport, finds Martin Rushmere
The US is casting around for a transport solution for its growing heavy vehicle and population density, particularly on the East Coast, with federal and local authorities turning to revitalising short sea routes.
The desultory and scattered efforts so far, mostly on the US Gulf coast and in the southern Atlantic seaboard states, have not had a wide-ranging impact. But the whole movement could be transformed by the biggest market in the country, New York, and its Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which has come up with the most far-reaching venture yet.
Entitled the North Atlantic Marine Highway Alliance, the idea is no more than a general wish-list to get more cargo moving on water around New York/New Jersey and the regions to the north and south.
The plan is an offshoot of the EDC's $100m Freight NYC initiative to get heavy vehicles off the city and region's bridges and tunnels as well as pacify the severely vexed 13 million residents of the area.
Authorities, including the EDC, are non-committal about the operational mechanics of the plan, saying that negotiations are still ongoing. The only money forthcoming so far is $300,000 from the Maritime Administration to help with planning.
The blessing of the federal agency is crucial, to clear unexpected regulatory hurdles and ensure advance warning of likely changes to laws.
The federal government's main incentive is to reduce pollution and make the roads easier to travel on. The Department of Transportation says that in terms of tonne-kilometres per litre of fuel used, a tug and barge operation is 3.7 times more efficient than road transport.
One difficulty in making the alliance a reality is that the development council is having to juggle the different demands of a local, intra-city barge network and the regional network. The overall view of the council is that "New York City can benefit from a hub-and-spoke marine highway barging operation. Using this approach, shipping containers or palletised cargo would move from large regional container terminals to various points in the city on barges via our waterways—thereby taking trucks off the roads and reducing roadway congestion and pollution.
"Such a system can also serve regional markets, moving freight by water to New England and Mid-Atlantic states, bypassing the city's congested highways. The City will assist in developing the facilities needed to support increased barging in our harbour,” the council says.
This will involve developing terminals for a local food distribution centre and for South Brooklyn's Sunset Park – a notoriously awkward logistical puzzle. Both are being discussed along with a regional barge council and a "regional service between New Jersey container terminals, New York City, and New England ports."
The alliance initiative has drawn strong interest from both businesses and ports. Blue Line Logistics of Belgium has advocated taking the concept a step further in the form of palletised cargo instead of containers, although this is more suited for local use around the city.
The Maritime Administration's current preference for the regional services is to use an articulated tug and barge system, with the tug pushing the barge.
Long term commitment
One of the most important strategic elements of success for any service is genuine commitment by all parties involved, says Dennis Lombardi, director of strategic development at Romark Logistics. In a presentation to a conference on the marine highway he said cargo owners "don't want to commit to rerouting cargo without a long-term commitment that the service will be there. They won't commit long term because they want to make sure it works for them."
Lack of commitment was a prime reason for the failure of the US West Coast barge service between the ports of Stockton and Oakland, says Stas Margaronis, a short sea analyst and consultant in California.
"Stockton lacked the support of the Port of Oakland, while the ILWU dockworkers' union was also not totally sold on the idea, so there were problems at both ends. Loading and unloading was slow at a time when viability was in trouble." One of the ILWU's complaints was that workers were not given the proper training.
As the service became costlier, loading/unloading took up more of the costs to the point that they accounted for at least 85% of the total transport cost per container.
Mr Margaronis says another weakness was that Stockton took charge of operational management, lacking the expertise and experience, instead of hiring a professional operator.