Maritime Highways

Some readers may remember Sean Connaughton, former chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors. Grappling with transportation and land use issues was one of his biggest challenges until he resigned to take a job as chief of the Maritime Adminstration for the Bush administration. Well, you take take the boy out of Prince William, but you can’t take Prince William out of the boy. It turns out that traffic congestion is still one of Connaughton’s obsessions.

Connaughton’s signature initiative is the “Maritime Highway,” a program to divert shipping containers from trucks to barges on inland waterways. Removing thousands of trucks from the Interstates, he hopes, will help alleviate traffic congestion. To test the viability of the concept, he’s proposing two pilot projects, one of which would move cargo between the ocean ports of Hampton Roads up the James River to the riverine Port of Richmond. Peter Galuszka has the story here.

There are practical reasons why shippers prefer trucks — they’re faster, and they fit better in just-in-time manufacturing supply chains. But there are circumstances in which barges make more economic sense. Connaughton hopes to shift the odds in favor of barges by tinkering with a federal dredging tax that punishes containers loaded with value-added products. He’s also trying to raise seed money to demonstrate the viability of the concept along the James River — something the private sector hasn’t been willing yet to undertake. With gasoline prices rising, the value proposition for barges over trucks is looking better all the time.
There is no silver bullet for solving Virginia’s traffic congestion. The best we can hope for is to identify dozens of solutions, some of which, like land use reform or congestion tolls, can address big chunks of the problem, and some of which, like maritime highways, take small slices out of the problem. It’s nice to know that Connaughton has been thinking creatively about problems back home during his tenure in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Columbia Coastal Transport. The New Jersey firm’s busiest barge route is between Norfolk and Baltimore.)

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24 responses to “Maritime Highways”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    ehhh.. there’s a reason why politicians without business experience.. should.. not get too carried away with “ideas”..


    the other way around.. a business person.. who gets involved in government… more hopeful…

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Time is the factor here. If it made sense to move goods by inland water, Baltimore’s ports would be bustling. The fact is that most container ships can’t go more than about 10kts up those rivers or the Chesapeake, making trucks even in bad traffic the preferred mode.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Except Connaughton has 20+ years experience in the private maritime sector.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    some cargo is much more time sensitive than other cargo. The value of this initiative is for cargo that can take a few days, as opposed to several hours. The West Coast has similar problems on their North/south interstates. this is well worth pursuing. Connaughton always has brought private sector experience and sensibility to his government service and appears to be doing so here also.

  5. Groveton Avatar

    Isn’t this the key sentence:

    “Connaughton hopes to shift the odds in favor of barges by tinkering with a federal dredging tax that punishes containers loaded with value-added products.”?

    Why would the Federal government have a tax punishing containers loaded with value added products?

    To fund dredging?

    Do high value products need more dredging than low value products?

    Or … is this the handiwork of the trucking and coal industries? The truckers want high value products shipped overland and the coal industry doesn’t want their low value product taxed?

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    this was part of my reason for speculating about business experience….

    this sounds like a plan to have transfer dredging costs to taxpayers from fee’s derived from barging..interests – which need dredging services for their operations.

    In other words – if we use Fed tax dollars for dredging… it will help the barging business…

    I dunno.. this sounds a lot like “social engineering” to me…

    but of course that would rile up our Republican friends who are opposed to social engineering.. except .. when it helps business.

    Perhaps we should distinquish between those who would social engineer from those that would “business engineer”.

    God forbid that we’d expect business to pay it’s own costs of doing business….


  7. Anonymous Avatar

    There seems to be a lot of confusion on this barge issue.

    (1) The proposal is to use less federal oney for dredging since there is a surplus. Besides, there’s hardly any “social engineering” aspect to maintaining harbors, which has ALWAYS been a government function.

    (2) Most coal will ALWAYS be moved by train. That’s because most generating plants that use coal are inland. As anyone who has lived near a coal mine can tell you, using trucks to haul coal is dirty and uneconomical. Generating plants need a lot of coal.

    (3) There are many limits to barging containers, so many that the concept will only do but so much to reduced congestion.That’s doesn’t mean it should not be tried and, once again, there isn’t any “social engineering” aspect to this at all.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Anything that is high value is time sensitive: you can’t afford to have a half million dollars worth of stuff taking a leisurely ride.

    In addition, some low value stuff is time sensitive because of justin time deliveries. If it isn’t there on time it causes other downstream costs.

    With regard to dredging, there may be other beneficiaries than just the barge companies. Sometimes, what we see as coastal flooding and erosion is really the result of sediment build up on the bottom.

    It isn’t that the sea level is rising, so much, or that there is more water coming down the river. But, if the bottom of the river or estuary rises and the same amount of water is coming down essentially the same slope, then the water will “pile up” and we see that as erosion or flooding.

    Water slows down as it drags on the bottom and therefore the same floodwaters will take longer to leave an area if there has been a lot of sedimentation.

    Really enormous or really heavy items move best by water. While dredging does benefit the barge companies it also benefits industries that have special transportation needs that otherwise cannot be met.

    If the bulk of the benefit falls to the barge companies then it makes sense that the bulk of the costs should come from them, but not all. Metro does not take all the cars off the road, but we still give it credit for reducint congestion. Barges won’t take all the containers of off the roads eaither.

    Whatever the various disperse benefits are, it is reasonable to expect that disperse sources or general funds will pick up the tab to that extent, and not dump it all on the barge lines. If we are disposing of tons of silt from other sources in the channels, then it would be unfair to expect the barge lines to clean up after agriculture, construction and other silt sources.


  9. Anonymous Avatar

    It is a good example of best environmental economic cost.

    Some might argue that agriculture and construction should spend whatever it takes on silt fence and other practices to prevent this problem. But it might be far more cost effective to let the silt accumulate naturally and then remove it than it is to go out to multiple sites with heroic methods (beyond the recognized standard ones) to try and prevent it.

    Maybe not, too, but you never know unless you at least think about it.


  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I dunno…

    is there is double-standard here where in some cases.. airtight, irrefutable proof of ROI is required.. and in other cases some sort of “fuzzy” math is just fine?

    In fact, the claim right now from some quarters is that transit is no cost-effective because.. the government has favored.. with it’s ROI policies.. the automobile and automobile infrastructure.

    and it looks like the “cure” is to take more tax money and springle it around.. for trucks, barges and rail….

    rather than stepping back and let competition .. “work”…

    as long as we have a mindset where folks think it is okay to use tax dollars to subsidize a particular business or industry.. it makes it real, real easy for those that favor stuff like transit to say “so what”?

    goose, gander… bad deal all around.

  11. Groveton Avatar

    Re: Shipping coal by train –

    Where does one catch the train to Belgium?

    The question about special interests and the Federal government is not whether most coal travels by rail but whether enough coal travels by barge to get the coal lobbyists excited.

    Re: Dredging and the environment –

    If I make the river deeper don’t I also drain the wetlands along the shore? And don’t these wetlands support the growth of cypress and mangrove trees which deaden the impact of hurricanes as they come ashore?

    I thought that the lack of a viable mangrove / cypress swmp was one of the reasons that Katrina was so devastating to New Orleans. Note: I don’t recall any reference to dredging from what I read – I am just wondering about “the pros and cons of silt”.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    wetlands.. smetlands… you’re taking heresey here..

    how in the heck are we going to get more coal to those power plants that are spewing Co2 and Merucry..

    where is your head .. boy?

    all this talk about “green”.. don’t you “get it”… it’s sound biteology to keep the masses busy so that thos eengaged in making money can be left alone..


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    It is possible, sometimes, to make an airtight decision based on which ROI is better even when the basic information is fuzzy. It is called decision under uncertainty. All you need to know is the range of uncertainty in the input to figure out the range of uncertainty in the answer.

    So if the best you can do is X = 20% ROI plus or minus 5% and Y = 19% ROI plus or minus 3%, then X is still most probably better, even if there is a finite probability it may come out worse.

    What you cannot do is start out with no information and no means of comparison. The other thing you cannot do (and get a right answer) is to ignore the costs one proposed solution imposes on others and not be consistent about it.

    We have one solution where generating plants spew mercury sulfur and CO2 in the air, which has a finite cost to everone who breathes.

    Another solution is to build giant HEPA filters and bag everything that comes out of the plant except electricity. That has cost in construction, operation, and disposal.

    Another solution is to spend one quarter as much and capture only half the waste.

    If the second solution cost more than the first solution, it is both environmetally and economically unsound.

    If the third solution plus the residual costs from not cleaning up everything is less than the first two solutions, then it is the most economically and environmentally effective solution, even if it is not perfect environmentally.

    We can insist on the second solution if we choose, and we can enforce that decision politically. But, if some one comes up with better evidence later, then we are environmentally and economically stupid to continue with that solution.


  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    for instance, we could start off spewing DDT and PCBs into the environment because the data we had on the impacts was “uncertain”.

    then when reports started coming in about impacts, we could claim that those reports were not airtight proof and that we should not “destroy” the industries and jobs that depended on these chemicals.

    Do you see how this works?

    At what point do you make – as you say -“the decision”… ??

    and what exactly do you do?

    do you do a total ban or do you restrict the usage?

    it’s not only not a perfect process from an “airtight” ROI perspective, it can and often… starts with little or not data and as time goes by the evidence mounts to the point where something used to be acceptable and as time goes by and evidence accumulates.. a total ban.

    Seldom, if ever… have we started out with a total ban and then decided later that we overreacted or those cases have to be in the 1/10 of 1% of cases.

    The problem is that once someone has money interests involved the larger picture is seldom of interest to them.

    The folks that made DDT, PCBs, etc fought long and hard even after most everyone else was convinced and their argument essentially was that an airtight ROI had not been done.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am a person who strongly believes in ROI and cost-benefits but the reality is that if the data is not collected and/or you have monied interests influencing the government, the data is not collected.

    For instance in Virginia, DEQ does not collect consistent water quality monitoring data because it says that it does not have the staff or resources to do so.

    And even when contamination is found, it take the threat of a lawsuit to force the state to post the contamination notices on the rivers – because they know that if enough of the public sees them that there will be political pressure to do something.

    In other words, we have some folks (monied interests) who demand ROI.. and then work to undermine collecting the data necessary for ROI.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    “In other words, we have some folks (monied interests) who demand ROI.. and then work to undermine collecting the data necessary for ROI.”

    Good point.

    On the other side you have people who demand a gold plated standard for their costs in order to shift the midpoint to their side.

    Unless that total ban is really justified correctly, then the result is more waste than necessary. As long as the cost appears to be borne by the other side we have no incentive to look out for the “other guys” costs.

    But, you cannot take that position and still claim to be working for the common good.

    There is plenty of fault on both sides, and the way we assess fault is with lawsuits, which themselves turn out to be based on economic interests.

    I’ve heard it said that what actually happens is that we have lawsuits on both sides, and when the amounts claimed are equal, that is where the EPA winds up setting the standards: the point where the costs curves and benefits curves cross gives the lowest net cost.

    Too bad lawsuits are such a wasteful way to get the right result.


  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    You cannot get the answer when the polluting industries are opposed to generating the data necessary to determine ROI.

    The reason is clear. They pretty much know what the studies will prove.

    Out of thousands and thousands of cases, I can’t think of a single one where a ban went “too far, too soon”.

    It’s almost always the reverse.

    The ban… finally comes.. after a tooth and nail fight … and virtually irrefutable data is finally provided.. all the while why the industry is fighting to undermine the data, and the industry then tries to use legislative influence to stave off change…

    The environmentalists and their lawsuits almost never win until there is virtual proof…

    and the money for enviromental lawsuits comes from who?

    and the money for industry lawsuits comes from who?

  17. Anonymous Avatar

    “You cannot get the answer when the polluting industries are opposed to generating the data necessary to determine ROI.”

    And you also cannot get the answer when environmentalists claim the answer is higher than it is. When they won’t even consider that there might be such a thing as too much answer.

    “Out of thousands and thousands of cases, I can’t think of a single one where a ban went “too far, too soon”.”

    You are probably right. Now show me one that was never incrementally increased and increased and increased. Show me one, where environmentalists said, gee, maybe we went too far.

    There is fault on both sides.

    Look at the situation in Oregon. The land use advocates lost that fight three times. They are now using the same arguments they previously denied as frivolous. And they still haven’t got the message that, maybe, they went too far.

    I just watched an old movie that pitted the growers against the developers. the growers approached one of the town elders to recommend a candidate for the swing seat on the board.

    And he said he wouldn’t do it. Such a move would pit one against the other, when the right idea was to find the best middle ground.

    We will never find the best middle ground by blaming the polluting industries. We sue, they sue, trying for the winner take all, slam dunk. The judge comes down somewhere in the middle.

    What a waste. And we call ourselves conservationists.


  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    …”And you also cannot get the answer when environmentalists claim the answer is higher than it is. When they won’t even consider that there might be such a thing as too much answer.”

    I think you are flat wrong. The entire issue is about what the facts are – not who claims what.

    Without the data – all you have is a argument with claims and counterclaims.

    Industry is usually OPPOSED to gathering data in the first place.

    When is the last time you heard a company demanding that data be collected and a study done on it’s pollution?

    In my mind, a REAL Envrionmentalist/Conservationist WANTs to KNOW the answers and advocates for collecting the data and finding the answers.

    Show me Envrios and Conservationists that are OPPOSED to getting the data.

    You know the truth here. It’s ZILTCH.

    This is really simple. The two sides are – those who DO want to KNOW and those that do not and the ones that don’t want to know –

    … are not the enviros…

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    “Show me Envrios and Conservationists that are OPPOSED to getting the data.”

    This is complete nonsense. All I have to show is one case to refute your argument.

    Here it is. The American Farmland Trust freely and consistently advertises that farms pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. I think we can agree that AFT is an environmentally consious organization. Their own data sugests that farmers should pay less, but that is not what they advocate.

    This is conceptually the same as any polluter paying for cleanup over and above its value. But that value is essentially set by those who claim the value of things we don’t ordinarily market as being near infinite. An infinite value is exactly the concept behind an inviolable, perpetual, conservation easment, for example.

    You can’t sell me on this one. I’ve worked in the field too long. If the environmentalists spent as much money doing environmentl work as they do legal work, everyone would be better off.

    Look at that recent development case. 1300 people signed a petitions against a mixed use development. For $250 a piece they could have bought the place. I have no doubt, that the money wasted in planning that development, along with the money wasted fighting it, could not have been spent in a much better manner.


  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross


    Can you tell me what pollution issues the AFT have worked on recently?

    Mercury pollution, power plants, global warming, auto pollution, storm water runoff, sewage treatment, etc

    How many lawsuits have AFT filed and on what pollution issues?

    When you lump groups together like this, you leave the impression that you really don’t know or understand the groups involved in environmental protection and the ones that are not.

    They ARE different.

    And citizens who are opposed to growth and development WHERE THEY LIVE .. the vast majority of them have never belonged to ANY environmental group much less for 20 years or more as devoted environmentalists have.

    those folks are “rainy day” environmentalists in name only and only invoke the name of Environmental organizations when it suits their purposes.

    Only Environmental Groups who have spent years, decades involved in Environmental issues and pollution would deserve to be classified as such – and those groups DO ask for and push for data and studies to determine the facts with regard to impacts and that includes peer-reviewed scientific studies as opposed to studies conducted by those who are paid by the polluters.

    Enviros do have their share of legitimate problems but the one’s you cite are not among them…

    do you actually belong to any groups? environmental that this?

  21. Anonymous Avatar

    I lump them together because money is a good proxy for resources and energy. Its called net environmental impact. Provided that the true values are calculated correctly, one waste is exactly as bad as another (This is never considered in EIS studies. In some cases it is against the law to consider it. Guess who got that law passed?) But, some waste can be cleaned up much more cheaply or be prevented much more cheaply than another. We get the most good out of identifying, and acting on, those.

    I have a degree in environmental chemistry. I know how the standards are set and measured.

    My Masters is in systems engineering, with studies in energy and environmental management. Spent more than eight years in the business, trying to apply real muscle and real resources to real problems.

    Metaphorically speaking, when I needed a bulldozer, what I got was a lawsuit. The utter and inconceivable waste was so horrendous that it turned my stomach. My company eventually got out of the business and moved on to other things: things where I could see something being accomplished. I was much happier.

    If some environmental group wants me to work for them, my fee is $250 an hour. Otherwise I just read their stuff becasue it is frequently so outrageously wrong that it makes me laugh out loud.

    I’d like to help, but I’m not willing to throw my money down that toilet until they clean up their act.

    I’ve seen an excavation site for a barn, in the middle of a perfectly flat field, surrounded by a hundred acres of dense grass. Nothing was going to run off that excavations site, but it was surrounded by yards and yards of high grade polyethylene silt fence, for absolutely no valid reason except to satisfy a stupid law promoted by environmentalists. I’m sorry, I don’t like runoff, but that situation was freaking crazy.

    I saw another case where ther was an existing stone wall. A tight wall. There was already soil built up along the base from natural runoff, that had not penetraded the wall. Right in front of the wall, at the insistence of some mindless bureaucrat, was a whole roll of high grade polyethylene and a hundred wooden stakes, protecting absolutely nothing. We would do the environment a favor by executing that bureaucratic nincompoop.

    I know a guy who has bought up an old farm, and he is restoring it and all the buildings. The work he has done and the money he has spent is phenomenal. He is doing everything “right”. (Some of it is economically stupid in my opinion, but if it makes him happy, its his project and his money.) He has let a conservation easement on the place and fenced off the streambed from the cows, etc etc. etc.

    Part of the work was to fix an old damaged streambed, and the brdge over it to his property. He had the permits, hired a qualified and trained operator, and did a nice job, I thought. An old deeply eroded gully was regraded to a wide shallow v. Now, instead of a torrent gouging out the stream bed it can gently rise into the v and the energy will be dissipated, resulting in much less erosion.

    The old stream side was heavily vegetated, but because the (natural, beccause no work had been done there for generations) erosion was so deep, the stream was free to undecut and destroy the trees and other vegetation.

    The new stream is heavily planted in tough water resistant grass, for now.

    It is a major improvement, but he got hammered by the soil and water conservation people for destroying the Chesapeake Bay. (a hundred miles away by water). Among other things, they were concerned that his bridge would’t withstand a hundred year flood, or that it would block the stream and increase flooding.

    Huh? If the bridge fails it won’t cause blockage and flooding. It’s a one percent chance, and he could rebuild a lesser bridge several times for the additional cost. If it doesn’t fail and the water backs up behind the bridge it still won’t overflow the new streambed. The only place it will flood is the flodplain he has already set aside, and it is his land. Not going to affect anybody else, not realistically.

    They made an enemy out of him for no reason. The whole thing was utterly stupid.

    The county hires two people to monitor silt fences at costruction sites, but there are dozens of equally bad runnoff sites that are agricultural. Care to guess why?

    These are all little things, just like a little oil leaks in a parking lot are little things. Act locally and think globally for heavens sake.

    This is just the stuff you can look around and see. When the spotted owl made the endangered lists people went out and cut down their pine forests prematurely, before a spotted owl could move in.

    Environmentalist thought getting the spotted owl on the endangered list was a big success. No doubt they had all the facts.

    I have no doubt they mean well. Some groups are even reasonably ethical. But my obsrvation is that there is a strong, us-against-them ethic that is highly counterproductive. The just don’t get the fact of declining returns: mopre is always better.

    PEC has taken a particular stance against this power line thing. As far as it goes it is a good one. It suits their charter. But they are wasting their ammunition on the wrong target. I’m not interested in contributing to someone who will waste the money.

    GE is going to dredge up (and release) PCB’s that are presently sequestered in the sldge on the bottom of the Hudson river. The PCB’s that are captured will be re buried someplace else that might be alittle more secure. It is as dumb as toast, but they got sued into it anyway. The fight has been going on for thirty years. If the PCB’s are still there, what’s the problem? A case like this has little to do with truth, (by now) and a lot to do with bureacratic momentum and ego.

    In this months farm magazine there is a story about a man who had land, but needed income. He found moved and restored two old log cabins and moved them to his property. They now generate a nice income as rustic bed and breakfasts.

    I’d love to have that opportunity, but the environmentalists here won’t have it. They already have their cabin in the woods.

    Another story shows a farm that had their barn painted by tractor supply. It would be considered advertizing here.

    Another letter says: We have quit feeding songbirds because our feeders have become a smorgasbord for the [protected] hawks. We have plenty of habitat, but our quail are gone, too.

    And another from an article describing one womans sustainable cattle operation: What I’d wish for now–
    I wish ranchers could be challenged less by environmentalists. Our industruy needs to educate and communicate the mortance of food production AND environmental stewardship.

    That’s just one issue of one magazine. It goes on and on. Then go look up articles in the environmental press that discuss the same topics, and see how they describe it.

    I’m not convinced that environmentla groups all do good, even if they think they are. You want to talk to me about the benfits of environmentalism? Show me the money. I’ve seen too many screw ups that hurt one person far more than they help the many. But that’s because I take the time to look on both sides of the silt fence.


  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    know the difference between environmentalists – and Federal/State regulators.

    It’s a small but important distinction.

    Environmentalists DO want to keep the silt from polluting creeks and rivers and they DO advocate for the laws to make that happen (to their credit).

    Who else steps forward? Certainly not the folks who claim they are environmentalists but choose to not act and instead blame others.

    Government regulators decide how to implement the laws and Environmentalists don’t find beauracracy and dumb implementations any more useful than other folks.

    blaming dumb rules implemented by government beaurecrats on environmentalists is misplaced and to be honest – dumb.


  23. Anonymous Avatar

    I’ll tell you what. When Sierra Club opens and ombudsman’s office and dedicates 5% of their legal budget to undoing environmental injustice and stupidity, you let me know.


  24. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Interesting discussion.
    I just thought I’d “barge in” here … LOL!

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