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”.