Short circuit

April 1, 2005
Facing a domestic infrastructure severely stressed with congestion, as well as projections that global trade will double from its current levels by 2020,

Facing a domestic infrastructure severely stressed with congestion, as well as projections that global trade will double from its current levels by 2020, American shippers are anxiously looking for alternatives to the traditional transportation modes of truck, rail and air. For many of these companies, using the nation's coastal and inland waterways for short sea shipping (SSS) is the way to go.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) ( defines SSS as: "commercial waterborne transportation that does not transit an ocean. It is an alternative form of commercial transportation that utilizes inland and coastal waterways to move commercial freight from major domestic ports to its destination."

As supporters are quick to point out, not only would SSS help to ease congestion on major highways — particularly I-95 in the East and I-5 in the West — but it also offers the hope of decreasing noise and air pollution.

Best Practices in Transportation: Short Sea Shipping
If SSS is such a good idea, then, why isn't it a significant portion of the country's intermodal network already? We posed that question to Jim Brogan, an associate at transportation specialist Cambridge Systematics Inc. (, a firm that has been very active in SSS research and analysis, having recently completed work for the Canadian government on the possibilities of shipping between Washington and Canada.

"SSS is working in Europe, but here in North America it's a completely different environment," notes Brogan. "In addition to geographical and historical factors, the European Union has a regional decision-making and fund providing body that just doesn't exist in the U.S."

Although there are several ongoing U.S. SSS efforts, a number of issues remain to be resolved before it becomes a vigorous part of the country's intermodal transportation. Beyond physical matters of establishing necessary facilities to handle the work, government agencies must be engaged for funding purposes. Both shippers and carriers have to be convinced of the benefits of SSS, but to this point most have been content to do business as they have always done, seeing no compelling need to alter the way cargo is presently being moved.

That situation may soon change, however. Mark Younge, managing member of Maritime Transport & Logistics Advisors (, recently completed a study on behalf of Florida's Port Canaveral to determine the potential of it becoming an SSS port. Based on interviews he conducted for the study, Younge thinks that momentum for SSS is beginning to show itself.

"When driving speeds are down to 43 mph and are predicted to be down to 22 mph five years from now on I-95, then transportation by ship becomes more competitive as far as transit times," Younge states. "If you take a look at what SSS offers right now, some motor carriers told us they would be willing to put their trucks on ships. Instead of drivers taking a tractor on a long haul and being gone from their families for a week or ten days, they can make five trips in one day to a port, and be home every night, making more money with less wear and tear on the tractor."

Meanwhile, the governments of the U.S., Canada and Mexico have signed a memorandum of cooperation to establish SSS as a viable entity for the three countries. The governments have realistic views of the issues they face.

Those challenges, according to Emile DiSanza, Canada's Director General, Marine Policy, include: the need for efficient infrastructure with enhanced intermodal integration; meeting market expectations of cost, reliability and scheduling; dealing with institutional rules and barriers; and changing the perception of SSS.

With so many seeming negatives, it is important to note that SSS operations have been run successfully for a number of years.

Along the West Coast, for example, Horizon Lines ( began serving Alaska as Sea-Land Service more than 35 years ago. It provides service from Tacoma, Wash., to Anchorage, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Lynden Transport's sister company, Alaska Marine Lines (, offers regular service between Seattle and southeast Alaska, as well as to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, Seward and Whittier.

Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc. ( has provided service between Seattle and Anchorage for 30 years. Its fleet of Ro/Ro (Roll on/Roll off) cargo ships was enhanced in 2003 with two new Orca Class vessels that can carry 600 28- to 53-foot trailers.

In the East, Columbia Coastal Transport ( has just added weekly 450 TEU container barge service between the ports of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Typical of its partnering with international steamship operators since 1990, the Philadelphia-Baltimore rotation will move imports from Hamburg-Sud vessels and bring empty containers on return trips.

"An ongoing shortage of truck power is forcing steamship companies to look for water options to move their cargo," says Bruce Fenimore, president of Columbia Coastal. "Choosing an all-water alternative helps alleviate port and highway congestion, one of the goals of the Short Sea Shipping initiative."

Columbia Coastal's twice-weekly service between the Port of New York and New Jersey and the Port of Albany is part of the Port Inland Distribution Network (PIDN), a hub-and-spoke system to move containers from the Port of New York and New Jersey by barge to water-accessible points.

The use of Albany as a feeder port, begun in April 2003, was the first for the PIDN. As Thomas Hannan, manager of port development for the Port of New York and New Jersey, explains, "There were a number of different analyses done as part of our normal long-range planning efforts. We came to realize there are a number of naturally occurring 'dense trade clusters' within a 50-mile radius of a number of potential feeder port locations and inland rail depots. PIDN is an ideal alternative way to move boxes off our facilities into these remote locations."

In Hannan's view, when boxes move off the port's terminals by barge, they have a shorter dwell time than if they sit waiting for trucks to pick them up. The movement gives the port an increase in the productive capacity of its terminals.

The Bridgeport Port Authority's daily service to the Port of New York and New Jersey is also being closely scrutinized as another potential major SSS operation. Joseph Riccio, Bridgeport's executive director, expects to be up and running this summer. Established in 1993, Bridgeport is relatively young, growing and looking for new opportunities.

"When New York began designing its PIDN, we were a natural destination, just an hour away, and one of the closest operating ports to them not under their jurisdiction," notes Riccio. "The State of Connecticut is investing $1.5 million in our service. Its purpose is to subsidize the tug and barge operator for a period of two years while we get up and running and establish this business."

Something different in the service for New York and New Jersey is that the Bridgeport service will be Ro/Ro as opposed, for example, to Columbia Coastal's Albany service, which is Lo/Lo (Lift on/Lift off). The Bridgeport barge operator will use a ramp installed on the vessel, making moving on and off easier and not causing changes in infrastructure.

"Much of what goes on in our port is a ground operation," says Hannan. "So when you're going to introduce a Ro/Ro operation, you want to do it in as seamless a manner as possible."

Riccio is bullish on the benefits the new service will provide. "The highway stretch from the George Washington Bridge to Bridgeport is one of the most congested in the country," he points out, "and that congestion is getting worse. There is no capacity for Connecticut to expand its highway system. There is no rail capacity to accommodate freight. SSS addresses these problems."

There are many next steps for SSS advocates to take. "Although we are a long way from alleviating congestion," notes Cambridge Systematics' Brogan, "there is an opportunity to make better use of domestic marine movements as a mode." To get there, he believes, will require convincing not only shippers and carriers, but public policy makers as well.

"There's a need to reach out to the intermodal marketing companies, particularly at larger ports," Brogan adds. "They control and route a lot of the cargo, and they're choosing modes."

Short Sea Shipping — from coast to coast

Here are four U.S. regions were Short Sea Shipping is succeeding:

Along the East Coast:

  • The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and its Port Inland Distribution Network
  • Columbia Coastal Transport, a barge operator running a number of successful cargo services
  • The Bridgeport Port Authority is about to initiate Ro/Ro barge service that will link it to New York

In the Great Lakes region:

  • The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry runs service between Detroit and Windsor, Ont.

In the U.S. Gulf Region:

  • Teco Ocean Shipping carries bulk commodities within the region on 15 vessels.
  • Osprey Lines operates container-on-barge services in the Texas area and has established a Mississippi River service from the Port of Baton Rouge to the Port of New Orleans.

Along the U.S. West Coast:

  • Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Horizon Lines and Lynden Transport serve cargo needs between Alaska and the state of Washington

Source: Short Sea Shipping Cooperative

Short Sea Shipping cargo types

Bulk/Breakbulk — These shipments include such commodities as coal, grain lumber, steel and petroleum. They are best suited to move by barge since they are high weight items of relatively low value, and not typically time-sensitive.

Containerized Cargo — These shipments are more typically seen in Europe rather than the U.S., where domestic containers and truck trailers are not usually handled in short sea operations. Containerized cargo is typically handled as part of feeder service, moving containers from smaller ports not called on by deep sea carriers to large deepwater ports.

Roll-on/Roll-off (Ro/Ro) Cargo — Refers to rolling cargo such as automobiles, trailers or other chassis-mounted cargo. May be loaded and unloaded at congested or less developed ports with little or no shore infrastructure (e.g., cranes).

Specialized Cargo — This cargo is typically too heavy or cumbersome to be transported by truck or rail. Examples include large electrical generators, cranes, assembled drilling platforms or other oversize and overweight cargo

Empty Containers — Redeploying empty containers is an important service provided by short sea shipping, particularly in Europe, where container imbalances among coastal ports often occur.

Source: Cambridge Systematics Inc.

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