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We used to ship things in this country

By Dylan Matthews

It sometimes seems like every approach to climate emissions reduction has some unrelated side benefit that on its own would be worthwhile. Taxing gasoline more would cut down car emissions, and also reduce congestion and car accidents. Reducing meat consumption would lead to more sustainable agricultural practices, and also make them more humane. Philip Longman adds another one to the list: domestic shipping. Trucking is a really fast way to move goods across the country, but it's also costly. It's the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., it has a high fatality rate, and it damages highways and especially back roads, and hugely expensive lane expansions on highways would be needed to keep up its current pace of growth. Luckily, the U.S. has enough internal waterways that domestic shipping could do the same job instead, much more cleanly, and potentially more quickly:

A tugboat plying inland waters can typically move a ton of freight more than 51,000 miles before emitting one ton of greenhouse gas. A truck, by contrast, releases nearly three times as much greenhouse gas over the same distance. ... Not only would they save money and fuel; they would even, in some cases, save time. For example, a single truck driver moving a container from Boston to Orlando can make the trip legally in no less than fifty-four hours, given speed limits and mandatory thirteen-hour rest periods each day. By contrast, in just thirty-three hours, a container can be taken by truck from Boston to the port of New London, then placed onto a high-speed coastal freighter and shipped to the port of Charleston, and finally trucked from Charleston to Orlando, according to Stephen P. Flott, founder of SeaBridge, who has testified before Congress in support of the idea and may yet bring it to fruition.

Longman has plenty of suggestions of how to kick marine transport into gear, like reforming the obscure "harbor maintenance tax" and having the Navy pay for merchant marine ships that could be leased by the government in case of emergency. Read the whole thing for more details.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  July 9, 2010; 10:46 AM ET
 
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Comments

BRING BACK THE ERIE CANAL!

Posted by: theorajones1 | July 9, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

To bad we now just stick our hand in the next guys pocket

Posted by: spaz06 | July 9, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

That Harvard boy sure does have a lot of ideas about using the government to control his fellow man. It's a shame he can't seem to control his own propensity in such regards.

Posted by: msoja | July 9, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Good paper. Makes a ton of sense. The beauty is that much of the infrastructure is already largely in place and currently under utilized. For example, New Bedford has a great port with lots of docks that are currently used to store the mothballed fishing fleet. The Intracoastal Waterway extends down most of the East Coast for more than 1200 miles, and with a little dredging here and there is perfectly capable of floating enormous amounts of freight via barges.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | July 9, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

--"The Intracoastal Waterway extends down most of the East Coast for more than 1200 miles, and with a little dredging here and there is perfectly capable of floating enormous amounts of freight via barges."--

Free intercoastal freight is every American's birthright!!!

Posted by: msoja | July 9, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

You can't leave rail out of the equation. I don't know the numbers, but I'd bet the farm that rail is more energy efficient that riverboats, and has a much better coverage network than the country's navigable waterways.

Posted by: hermus | July 9, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

You can't leave rail out of the equation. I don't know the numbers, but I'd bet the farm that rail is more energy efficient that riverboats, and has a much better coverage network than the country's navigable waterways. Dredge & fill can also have negative impacts to aquatic wildlife.

Posted by: hermus | July 9, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

You're right that trains can be more efficient than shipping. Here's a table from Wikipedia showing BTUs per short ton mile:
Class 1 Railroads 341
Domestic Waterborne 510
Heavy Trucks 3,357
Air freight (approx) 9,600

Of course the answer is to use a lot more ships and trains where each one makes the most sense. For example, it is a lot shorter by sea from Miami to New York than it is by land, plus you have the Gulf Stream pushing you along for much of the way. And, you don't need to build tracks, bridges, switching stations, etc. for sea transport. In many cases we have under utilized port facilities already in place.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | July 9, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

"Reducing meat consumption would lead to more sustainable agricultural practices, and also make them more humane." Where do you come up with such nonsense and ignorance, especially when you seem to know what you're talking about? Meat consumption is healthy and environmentally sound and actually sequesters carbon if the animals are pastured and grassfed. Factory farming, conventional agriculture, in all of its dimensions, is what you're talking about. It abuses land, water, animals, the environment, and, ultimately, us. Don't be sloppy with your thinking and writing.

Posted by: johnsonr1 | July 9, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

A major reason trucks win out over water transportation is door-to-door delivery that
significantly reduces labor costs.
With trucks you put it on the truck at the factory or port and unload it at the store.
With barges you truck it from the factory or port to the barge. Transfer it to the barge. At the end of the water journey you have to again transfer it back to a truck before it goes to the store. The costs of the extra two transfers on to and off the boat often offsets any cost advantage cheaper water transportation saves. Second, water transportation is much slower. In a world of "just-in-time" inventory management this adds another indirect cost that makes water transportation more expensive.

The two major uses of boat transportation is for coal and grain. This is usually a trip from the producer --mine or farm -- to a single end use that has deliberately placed it business on the water to take advantage of lower water transportation cost -- think coal fired electricity plants and ships in ports for sending grain exports abroad.

Posted by: seerrees | July 10, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

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