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New US shipping freight plan - vessels can't vote

New US shipping freight plan - vessels can't vote
The most recent surface transportation reauthorisation law, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), includes freight planning and the establishment of a National Freight Policy (NFP) for the first time. The US Department of Transportation has now produced a draft- 143 pages in all - for public comment, of the National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP), as mandated in MAP-21.

The emphasis in the draft is on connectivity - considering the movement of freight as a giant network. Lately, the network has atrophied and is in need of fresh investment, a point made repeatedly in this report, with references to programs such as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) programme – which has funded isolated improvements at certain ports.

Ocean shipping, particularly post-panamax container freight moves, is considered in the context of the interface with other modes- especially road and rail. The shipping-related “action” items in the report, such as they are, emphasize two concerns, congestion generally, more trucks with containers on the road, and, in particular, interfaces around harbor areas as larger vessels have the potential to overwhelm landside infrastructure.

Quite simply, the growth of vessel sizes has left landside planners playing “catch-up” for decades. An earlier iteration of MAP-21, the ISTEA (of 1991) identified smooth intermodal connectivity as an issue. At this point, the game has advanced to another inning. The report cites progress at Seattle Tacoma (now combined as The Northwest Seaport Alliance): “Seattle/Tacoma is a key stop on the trade corridor between East Asia and the United States. Although the port handles roughly 5,000 containers per day, its facilities are in need of repair. In light of this fact, the port plans to use the TIGER grant funding to strengthen an aging dock and extend a dock crane rail.

These improvements will increase the port’s capacity and efficiency while allowing it to accommodate two post-Panamax size vessels at the same time. The port will also use the TIGER grant to construct a new truck ramp with more direct access to the port’s intermodal yard.” This sidebar reflects the overall maritime discussion, very bespoke, and far removed from the real world of containerships, tankers and bulk carriers.

The US Maritime Administration (MARAD), part of the Department of Transportation, has funded projects related to short-sea and feeder vessels, under the banner of “America’s Marine Highway”. Potentially, this initiative, where several handfuls of projects have received attention, and funding, can play into efforts to move truck traffic off the motorways.

The subtext of the report offers clues to where planners’ attentions and, yes, money, may be directed. In designing a map to illustrate the NFSP, the Americas Marine Highways have been included. In a business where planners and industry do not always read from the same page (or map), one could infer that the flow of US government funding - under the banner of TIGER and a clutch of other acronyms - would move in the direction of barges and vessels well known to the planners, increasing the advantages of ports already served in Marine Highway projects. The report was written prior to the El Faro vessel tragedy; the Marine Highway discussion could figure into the fresh debate now about Jones Act containerships. The NFSP can be found at: http://www.transportation.gov/freight/NFSP

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