Columbia Coastal Transportation last week terminated what could be considered one of the oldest marine highway services in the U.S. The company, which specializes in moving international containers between ports by tug and barge, ended its weekly service between Elizabeth, N.J., and Boston after 20 years of operation.
The termination puts into question the future of one of the Department of Transportation’s designated marine highways projects. The ports are eligible for a share of $7 million in development grants from the Maritime Administration. Kevin Laffey, the port of Boston’s director of cargo marketing, said a “significant number” of containers move between Boston and the New Jersey ports. The Marad grant would have allowed development of a route extension to Portland, Maine.
However, Kevin Mack, vice president of development for Columbia Coastal, said container volume between Boston and New Jersey has declined sharply in the past three years because trucking rates have dropped so low. Columbia was transporting 100 to 150 containers a week, mostly heavyweight refrigerated boxes that can’t be moved by highway. The volume is about half of the barge’s capacity.
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Another reason for the decline is the advent of direct service to Boston by international carriers, Mack said. Mediterranean Shipping and the CKYH Alliance of Cosco, “K” Line, Yang Ming and Hanjin now call at Boston. Columbia Coastal originally was the way the carriers served Boston. Once volume increased, the carriers no longer needed shuttle service, Mack said.
Mack said that Columbia tried to offset declining shuttle volume by transporting export containers of wood pulp from Portland, but earlier this month the shippers announced the bottom had dropped out of their market.
Columbia still operates between Norfolk and Baltimore. Mack said this week it began service between Philadelphia and Norfolk for 80 to 100 containers of military supplies per week.
The company has been a strong advocate of the marine highways program, but Mack said any venture should be built around a business model that does not depend on government support.
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