Reeve and Associates

Reeve and Associates

One of the interesting issues in the much-debated, much-delayed full-fledged introduction of the marine highway in U.S. domestic shipping is whether services should cater to international traffic on a feeder basis, pure domestic traffic as an intermodal option, or both.

Europe’s relatively successful short-sea services often are held up as an example. These services operate primarily as feeders of cargoes moving on an interregional basis. And although some intra-European traffic crosses national borders, it’s in the minority — and crossing borders within the European Union may not be a big deal, anyway.

Using short-sea services as feeder operations for international containers occurs within the U.S. on a limited basis but several factors work against it. First, the U.S. coastline, particularly in the Atlantic and Gulf, has several major ports well within a day’s dray of each other. A shipper can direct a container to a port relatively close to its final destination.

Second, international container ports are expensive places to discharge a container, reload it, discharge it and truck it to its destination.

And lastly, international container ports may be in congested landside traffic locations, and require all the customs and homeland security apparatus international traffic entails.

Those factors undercut the economics of coastwise container feeder operations — before even considering all the issues of Jones Act tonnage. So, why would any clear-thinking U.S. trucking operator consider a hybrid model of combined international and domestic traffic in the same service?

The obvious conclusion is to keep domestic and international traffic separate. If U.S. marine terminal-handling costs decline dramatically and highway congestion goes off the scale, perhaps coastal feeder services for normal weight international containers will become significant. I’d put my money, however, on the other horse: dedicated domestic marine highway services moving long-haul domestic truckload freight between low-cost roll-on, roll-off terminals in well-situated smaller ports with non-congested highway access — sort of like what the railroads do today in domestic intermodal rail transportation.