Short sea shipping in the US?

An old thread but very much on topic. It all starts with baby steps…


There needs to be a terminal network setup to cost effectively load/offload barges and load to truck / rail. DM me if anyone is interested in pursuing this.

From the Marinelink article:

(Handicapping) the Shortsea Effort
Coastwise transportation in the United States requires American built tonnage. The projected costs of building a coastwise feeder vessel, handling containers delivered to deep draft ports and delivering for the final short leg to smaller niche ports, would drive the cost of (coastwise) waterborne transport to levels uncompetitive with truck or rail. Add to that the double whammy of the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) when handling that container twice, and the formula has been shown to have no sea legs.

These issues are not lost on transport planners; attention is increasingly moving to the water though coastal shipping must compete with surface transport modes. The trucking and rail lobbies are powerful and well funded, long entrenched with cargo owners. Eventually, when the discussion turns to shortsea shipping, container-on-barge and/or the uniquely American 53’ roll-on/roll-off modes have emerged as the preferred choices to improve efficiencies…

Where cargo is to be barged, there may well be a truck component, in the form of drayage costs and waiting time around a terminal. These can substantially increase the cost.” He continued, “In some cases, it’s very hard to compete with the truck economics.” At Richmond, VA, the barge terminal is very near to I-95, helping to make the barge competitive because of the convenient road/waterfront interface.

Something absent from the article is the mention of who would load/unload these containers from the vessels (whatever vessel design is used). Seems that everybody forgets the cost of longshoremen.

But moving back to the Richmond VA port as an example, here are some nice tidbits of info:

Richmond had used local, state and Federal grants to implement the “64 Express” in 2008 to carry containers between Richmond and Hampton Roads by barge. The Virginia Port Authority streamlined shipments so Richmond would handle just barges; all ocean-going ships now leave from just terminals in Hampton Roads…
In 2012, the Virginia Port Authority expanded the 64 Express to three trips/week… Expanding to three trips/week convinced Mediterranean Shipping to schedule regular service to Richmond.

Each barge carries 80-100 containers between Richmond and the Norfolk International Terminals (NIT) or the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal. Barging containers up the James River on a “maritime highway” to customers at Hopewell and Richmond removes 12-15,000 truck trips per year from I-64, justifying the $2.3 million grant from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program and a $200,000/year subsidy from the state.

By 2016, 10 of the major carriers had created bills of lading defining Richmond as a destinations and point of origin for cargo that would be carried by the larger ships stopping at a Hampton Roads terminal. …The Richmond Marine Terminal handled 10,000 TEU’s in 2014, with barge service only three days/week. … n 2017-18, developers committed to two major warehouse projects near the port. The private companies inested their funds, speculating that container traffic through the Port of Virginia would increase and new storage space would be required at Richmond.29

Barge traffic grew substantially each year after 2014. Volume of TEU’s tripled to 34,200 in 2018, and a second barge was added that year. Each container shipped up and down the James River by barge took two truckloads off Interstate 64, reducing traffic going through the congestion at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and in Newport News. In 2019, the Executive Director of the Virginia Port Authority described the barge service as:30

the most successful marine highway in the country

Another issue few mention is that commercial waterfront around the USA has been converted to residential (condos/houses/apartments). It’s truly sad to see the complete loss of deepwater ports for housing. The new “value” of the buildings on the land make it impossible to ever re-start shipping operations, even if somebody is willing to invest the money in infrastructure.

And also, the ultimate problem is the USA mostly follows the variable cost philosophy of long term planning (which seeks to completely avoid large capital costs). On the one page budget sheet, trucking looks “cheap”.

Very true. Though most on this forum don’t remember the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-75 it was a time of serious thought as to how to move goods cheaply as fuel was short and expensive. Short sea shipping almost made a go of it but as the embargo lifted so did the interest in short sea. Business is determined on cost effectiveness. As long as the US has some of the cheapest fuel in the developed world there is no good business sense to provide the infrastructure and capital outlay it would take to make short sea shipping feasible. In Europe it makes perfect sense but they also have fuel costs that prohibit them even thinking about going grocery shopping in a pickup truck or SUV, much less commuting to work.

It’s not just the cost of fuel. It’s that the true cost of transportation is heavily subsidized…trucks piggy-back on infrastructure built for cars. I wonder if pappa Dwight expected his Interstate Highway System to be used (arguably, abused) by trucks to carry freight. Back then, much freight was down via ship and train.

When fuel prices went high in the 2000’s, freight by train was sexy again. Sadly, many of the US rail lines have been torn up; it’s but a fraction of what was there in 1970s and before.

The other sad thing is that the short sea and rail infrastructure in the USA used to exist! Funny how we sit here and say “OMG it will be so much $$$$$ to do short sea shipping”. But we used to have canals, barges, trains, etc. Oh well.

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Well yeah but that charming old brick warehouse next to the canal would be much better utilized as a creative space with an artisan cheese shop and a yoga studio. Oh and a place to get your hair blown out for ladies and a barber that gives you bourbon while he manscapes your beard for the men.


“Add to that the double whammy of the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) when handling that container twice”

This is not a thing. The HMT is payable on imports only, not domestic cargo movement.

The longshore problem is a huge issue. To be competitive you’d need to setup a network of private terminals with minimum labor to handle the coastwise cargo.

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From 26 U.S. Code § 4461: (

(a)General rule

There is hereby imposed a [tax] on any [port] use.

(b)Amount of tax

The amount of the [tax] imposed by subsection (a) on any [port] use shall be an amount equal to 0.125 percent of the [value] of the [commercial cargo] involved.

©Liability and time of imposition of tax

(1)Liability The [tax] imposed by subsection (a) shall be paid by—

(A) in the case of cargo entering the [United States], the importer, or

(B) in any other case, the shipper.

(2) Time of imposition

Except as provided by regulations, the [tax] imposed by subsection (a) shall be imposed at the time of unloading.

It seems to apply to both imports and domestic cargo (exports are excluded). Is there some other law that exempts domestic port to domestic port cargo?

IMO has issued a concept of a Sustainable Maritime Transportation System that does not only address domestic shipping but the entire Maritime Industry of a country:
Some of these ideas and advise may apply to the US as well. (??)

But I like my smooth chest. . . . .

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I stand corrected. Good call out

Honestly, I was hoping there was some other law that provided an exception that I was unaware of.

I wouldn’t mind the HMT so much if it was actually being used in full force for the maintenance (or improvement) of harbors as its name implies. Many of the articles I read on it say that it’s not being used for that.

Seriously Ombugge? You are still beating this dead horse since like early 2017?

I renewed my log in just to ask.

Ain’t nothing changed in the US to facilitate or encourage short sea sector so give it up. Maybe after Trump exits the scene, but I doubt it.

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In the middle of a long string of posts about US short sea shipping I posted an IMO video about National Maritime Transport Policy:
with the suggestion that some of it may apply to US as well. (Questionmark)

What sinister intentions did you manage to read into that may I ask?

That’s the point …. a long string (since like 2016) about short sea shipping in the US. We have explained most every logistical, cost and technical factor associated with the topic, reviewed the past, future and policies affecting it. What else is there to talk about? It ain’t sinister, it is just like …. seriously. Give it up (at least for the US).

Although as a former mariner, I am strongly in favour of such a thing, it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes. Let’s talk about something really sinister, like The War on Christmas.

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That is the wrong attitude. Just because something is hard, difficult to get done, or have never been done before, doesn’t mean you should give up. (Just ask JFK)
If everybody had that attitude we would still be dragging things along the ground and the Irish would never have invented the wheel.
Thanks heaven there are people around the world that don’t listen to the naysayers that find it is easier and more comfortable to just let things be as before, rather than try something new.

It’s not as if Short Sea Shipping is anything new and doesn’t exist in most of the world, but it is a question of changing the thinking and understanding of it by people the US.

PS> This thread had been inactive for 10 months before it was brought up again a few days ago.

It is because short sea does not beat the delivery times or costs of rail or road in the USA, or combinations of those factors. It ain’t changing anytime soon because of hard baked into the cake policies that keep fuel cheap and road use in the USA free or very low cost compared to EU (where I generally live). As it is, this is the way it is in USA

If you can slap a container on a double stack car in Norfolk or Savannah and have it in the yard at Chicago in 36 hrs, you ain’t gonna fool around with shuffling it on a boat. Or a container of TV’s loaded on a train in LA / Long Beach and arriving at a Walmart in Lexington, Kentucky +/- 15 minutes of a known pre-agreed time …. You ain’t gonna mess with a ship, a barge and a bunch of kerfuffle.

But those factors we reviewed in depth like back in January 2017… so yeah, give up. It is like talking about trying to breathe underwater when we have lungs and not gills. No future in it.

Not everything is about money and efficiency and not everything need to be delivered immediately.

Since you live in an EU country you should know that the renewed interest in Short Sea Shipping is about emission of both particles, SOX, NOX and greenhouse gasses. not just that it is cheaper, safer and cause less road congestion on already crowded highway and streets.

America runs on grease and the color of grease is GREEN. That is, Green like the Dollar Bill.

No one in the USA with the power to change anything is giving a hoot about SOx NOx or any of that silly environmental socialist trollup coming out of the EU.

At least not until Washington, DC or maybe the Hamptons, sinks below the rising seas.

Short Sea ain’t cheaper or faster in the US market, and will not be for the foreseeable future. Game Over.