Subcommittee Shows Support for Shoring up Short Sea Shipping

June 21, 2019

On June 19, The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held a hearing on “Short Sea Shipping: Rebuilding America’s Maritime Industry.” The hearing kicked off with testimony from U.S. Maritime Administrator, Rear Admiral Mark Buzby. The following witnesses then testified to the Subcommittee:

  • Jon Nass, Chief Executive Officer, Maine Port Authority
  • James WeakleyPresident, Lake Carriers’ Association
  • Larry WillisPresident, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

As goods movement in the US continues to increase, additional freight capacity is needed. The discussion at the hearing expanded beyond short sea shipping to include shipping through the great lakes and along inland waterways making the point that regardless of the route, investment in our waterways can help reach national transportation goals. The witnesses argued that increasing shipping along marine highways provides national economic, environmental, and workforce benefits.


Infrastructure associated with cargo movement includes rail, where the tracks are largely privately owned and operated; trucking, which utilized roadways built and maintained by the federal government, and maritime shipping, which travels along waterways and associated ports and other waterway maintenance. Shipping by water can minimize additional need for trucking capacity, relieving additional strain on the National Highway System from heavy vehicle wear and tear, thus decreasing lifecycle maintenance needs and costs.  At a time when the Highway Trust Fund remains insolvent, caring for existing infrastructure can help improve roadway asset management. However, funds to support short sea shipping are also needed, which could come from sources such as the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, as emphasized earlier this year by the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.


Goods movement by water is significantly more fuel efficient than by trucks or by rail. Weakly presented data on the fuel usage and CO2 production of freight movement by mode showing the benefits of using great lakes carriers and barges.

By either moving freight movement from highways to waterways or by utilizing marine shipping for the additional capacity needed as freight volumes increase could help reduce emissions and fuel consumption at a national level.


The subcommittee and witnesses all agreed that maintaining the Jones Act is paramount to achieving the economic and workforce benefits of increasing use of marine highways. With a shortage of mariners in the US, creating jobs in the field and providing training and career development can help grow this vocational sector both for civilians and the military bolstering the economy and nation. Buzby pointed specifically to existing state and federal maritime academies and the possibility of expanding programs to high schools and community colleges.

Witnesses cited the double burden of the harbor maintenance tax as a significant barrier to increasing short sea shipping. Given that companies will always opt to minimize cost, the marginal difference in cost between sending goods over land and by water is critical in freight movement mode split. The cost in time is also a barrier, especially in winter when a shortage of ice breakers can increase shipping time across the great lakes and far north along the rivers.  The panel suggested that investing in ice breakers would provide time savings translating into national economic benefits far exceeding the cost of the equipment.

Overcoming the barriers and adding incentives to ship by tugboat, barge, and ferry could lead provide benefits to the national economy, environment, and national security. The hearing served as a call to bolster the America’s Marine Highway Program (run by MARAD) to facilitate growth of freight movement along the marine highway routes and achieve these goals.

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