Freight transport on the country’s coasts and inland waterways, more commonly known as short sea shipping, is in a pitiable state. Despite being the most energy-efficient method of freight transport it accounts for a mere 6 percent of domestic tonnage moved. The corresponding figure in Europe is 40 percent. Instead of using waterborne transport, Americans place about 75 percent of their freight on trucks. That means more highway congestion, more highway maintenance, and more pollution.
This is unlikely to change if a recent House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee hearing on short sea shipping is any indication.
At the hearing, Ranking Member Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH) noted various explanations for the dearth of short sea shipping such as ports configured to handle large vessels (rather than smaller ones more suitable for short sea shipping), a reluctance by shippers to switch to new transportation modes, and financing difficulties faced by shipbuilders. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby, meanwhile, laid primary blame for short sea shipping’s relatively minimal usage on insufficient awareness of this transport option.
Although numerous causes were proffered one of the most glaring obstacles to domestic short sea shipping mysteriously went unmentioned: the Jones Act. Passed in 1920, the law restricts domestic waterborne transport to vessels that are U.S.-flagged, U.S.-crewed, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-built.