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Marine Highway projects get boost in New York Harbor, inland rivers

Jul 30, 2015 12:39 PM
Containers are hoisted onto a barge during a test run of a new Marine Highway initiative involving Ingram Marine in April. The inland service, which will stretch from New Orleans to Chicago and elsewhere, is scheduled to begin next year.

Courtesy Ingram Marine Group

Containers are hoisted onto a barge during a test run of a new Marine Highway initiative involving Ingram Marine in April. The inland service, which will stretch from New Orleans to Chicago and elsewhere, is scheduled to begin next year.

When barges stacked with shipping containers make way from New Jersey’s Port Newark to the Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn, N.Y., this summer, most mariners will probably regard the sight as business as usual. Container-on-barge transport has been a fact of life in the nation’s third-busiest port for more than 20 years. But a major service expansion marks the beginning of a new era in New York Harbor short-sea shipping.
 
In April, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx supported the expansion of the Port of New York and New Jersey’s cross-harbor freight network by designating a new route as an official Marine Highway. The service was expected to launch in July. 

The Department of Transportation gave the same status to two other projects. 

A new container-on-barge service on the Mississippi River system will operate between New Orleans, Chicago and beyond, with scheduled stops at other river ports. In April, Ingram Marine, which has been working closely with community planners to develop the service, made a successful test run, carrying containers in a hopper barge from Paducah, Ky., to America’s Central Port at Granite City, Ill., across the Mississippi from St. Louis. The target start date is fall 2016.

The third Marine Highway designee is a Washington, D.C.-area commuter ferry service linking work and residential centers in Maryland, Virginia and the nation’s capital via the Potomac, Occoquan and Anacostia rivers. That project is still in the planning stage.

The U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) oversees the Marine Highway Program, which was created to encourage the use of the county’s 29,000 nm of navigable waterways for shipping and ferry transportation, according to Kim Strong, an agency spokeswoman. A primary goal is to use waterways instead of highways to move containers from ocean ports to inland communities, thereby reducing pollution and road and bridge maintenance costs.  

Marine Highway designation does not come with federal funding, however. It merely makes the projects eligible for future funding from the Department of Transportation and MarAd, if such funding ever becomes available. 

“That’s a big if,” said Beth Rooney, assistant director of the Port Performance Task Force at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. While the port authority and the New York City Economic Development Corp. applied for the new Marine Highway designation, the new cross-harbor barge service will be operated, without subsidies, by two private entities: Red Hook Container Terminal (RHCT) and Port Newark Container Terminal (PNCT). 

RHCT President Mike Stamatis, whose company has been running an economically viable container-on-barge service for two decades, is not concerned about subsidies. He sees no reason why the new service would not be even more successful. 

The two New York Harbor container-on-barge services differ mainly in terms of customers and port terminals. The longstanding service has operated between two RHCT-owned terminals at Brooklyn and its satellite at Port Newark. That continuing service is limited to customers that make regular calls at Red Hook Container Terminal, according to Stamatis.

The new container service, between PNCT and Red Hook, is open to any Port Newark customer with containers headed to or from Brooklyn, Queens or Long Island. 

While final terms were still being negotiated in late May, Mediterranean Shipping Co. was expected to be the first major customer. Stamatis said the service will likely begin with weekly shipments, but “our goal is a barge a day.” Two barges, aptly called New York and New Jersey, can carry a maximum of 1,040 containers between them. Stamatis said he expected Moran tugs to tow the barges, as they have been doing for RHCT’s other container-on-barge service.  

For Colin Wellenkamp, director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, the Marine Highway designation is especially valuable for their proposed container-on-barge service because it comes with federal technical assistance. 

A working group, led by Wellenkamp’s organization and consisting of Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals, the mayors of several Mississippi River cities, and several businesses, including Walmart, Home Depot and Ingram Marine, has come to the conclusion that containerized shipping using inland waterways is the only way to meet the increasing demand for freight transport.

Home Depot and Walmart, Wellenkamp said, have been very supportive of the container-on-barge initiative, “We are very pleased with how this has been going,” he added. “With the MarAd designation showing this is real, we can now bring in ocean carriers and shipping consultant groups to set this in motion.” 

For its part, Ingram is ready to go. “The test run went great,” said Chuck Arnold, vice president of business and strategic development of Ingram Barge Co. “We could start this tomorrow if everyone else was ready.” Wellenkamp said it will take a bit longer to develop a customer base.

The Northern Virginia Regional Association has been working with local communities, county governments and transportation planners since 2006 to create a plan for fast ferry service for the Washington region. Frank Principi, a supervisor on Virginia’s Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said they have done some testing but still don’t have an operating plan. He would not speculate on a start date for the new Marine Highway ferry project. “It is fair to say we are still in the planning phase. We need to develop an operational plan and a financing mechanism, so it is not good to suggest a starting date,” he said.

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