America’s roads, especially around metropolitan areas, have long exceeded their capacity to move people and cargo efficiently. Having spent 3 hours on a six-lane super highway in SoCal to go just 60 miles, I now understand that better than ever. Part of the problem is all those long-haul trucks. They take up the space of four or five cars, get terrible gas mileage, and when they have an accident, it usually shuts down the highway. There has to be a better way.
And there just might. The Department of Transportation is working on an idea to promote marine highways. The idea is that smaller cargo ships could transport large loads longer distances, taking long haul trucks off the road. Could it work?
For centuries, the only quick way to move a large quantity of goods was via boats. No secret there. Between trains and automobiles though, shipping suddenly became unfashionable. Most shipping done today is the overseas sort, from one continent to another. The DOT wants to make small-scale shipping big again. The idea looks to Europe for influence, where small ships called RoRo’s travel up and down Europe’s many river delivering goods to small ports. Connecticut was once a huge port state, though now most traffic passes it right by on the way to New York or New Jersey, which have the crane capacity to handle large loads of containers.
RoRo’s wouldn’t need cranes though. Instead, trucks can drive right up onto a RoRo, hook up their load, and leave. Since they are smaller than large container ships, they can fit in shallower rivers. The idea is to create jobs by building up a lot of smaller ports. Then the loads can be put on either trains or short-haul trucks. This isn’t unlike the history of the steamboat, which for decades made travel along America’s many rivers quicker than previously possible. It brought civilization to many parts previously unsettled, and inspired writers like Mark Twain.
While I think this idea has merits, especially concerning job creation, I question the environmental soundness of such a plan. Big boats run on heavy oil, and even smaller ships still spew out an incredible amount of emissions. So do big trucks. And the impact on local ecosystems from ships plowing through shallow rivers, especially those running through our nation’s many national parks and protected areas, could be disastrous. The options will have to be carefully weighed on this one.
Chris DeMorro is a car enthusiast, blogger, and all-around crazy man who is as passionate about hybrids as he is about Hemis. You can follow his constant misadventures at Three Months In A Mustang.