ico-electricity2 [ Barrels of Oil Equivalent Saved: ] 346M
ico-job [ Jobs Impact: ]
  • LOW
  • HIGH
ico-cost [ Budget Impact: ]
  • LOW
  • HIGH
ico-pollution [ Conventional Pollutants Reduced: ]

NOx95,376 tons

ico-reduced [ Megatons of GHG Reduced: ] 11


U.S. highways already suffer from traffic issues, with 23% of urban congestion resulting from trucking.1 This problem will likely worsen, as freight transportation is projected to grow 50% by 2040.2 Heavy trucks are also responsible for roughly 19% of GHG emissions3 and 17% of energy use associated with the entire transportation sector.4 Other modes of freight transportation, like marine shipping, could absorb excess truck traffic while using less fuel and how roducing less pollution. However, given that trucking receives seven times more public subsidy per ton-mile,5 marine shipping is unlikely to increase its 5% share of the freight market6 without substantial changes in federal policy.


In addition to its ability to reduce highway congestion, the greatest benefits of marine freight transportation over trucking are energy efficiency, pollution reduction, and safety. Maritime shipping requires one-tenth of the energy needed for trucking,7 and every billion ton-miles of freight moved on waterways instead of highways reduces emissions of NOx by 2,550 tons and CO2 equivalent by 212 megatons. It also avoids an average of 2.5 fatalities and 60 injuries related to highway transportation.8

Despite the benefits that marine shipping provides, it makes up a very small portion of total freight transportation in the U.S. This is due in part to slower speeds and reduced geographic access associated with marine shipping. But low utilization of waterways for freight transport can also be attributed to a strong bias in public subsidization toward trucking and the highways that it depends upon. Fuel taxes have fallen billions of dollars short of total highway infrastructure costs in recent years, leaving taxpayers to take up the slack. These infrastructure costs, along with costs from pollution, congestion, and safety, require the American public to pick up a $127 billion tab for trucking every year.9

Marine freight gets about 3% as much public support as trucking.10 In fact, a recent government analysis determined that every billion ton-miles of freight moved by waterways instead of highways actually reduces costs to society by up to $57.5 million.11 Though trucking will always play a vital role in servicing the “last mile” of the transportation chain, the U.S. could benefit both economically and environmentally by utilizing more efficient modes like marine shipping wherever possible.


The federal government has several planning, financing, and regulatory tools it could use to encourage freight transportation on the nation’s waterways.

Include Waterways in Freight Transportation Planning

Instead of making America’s waterways an afterthought, Congress and the Department of Transportation (DOT) should include marine options in national freight planning and research, especially in the next surface transportation authorization.12 DOT also should provide the states with a basic model for economic analysis to encourage evaluation of various modal options for meeting freight transportation needs, not simply the expansion of highways. DOT can provide additional technical assistance to state and local transportation planners to help them take advantage of economic analysis tools.13

Release Money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund

To carry out needed dredging and maintenance projects, Congress should mandate that the full amount of annual receipts into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) be appropriated for these purposes each year. By appropriating far less from this account than it takes in each year from user fees, Congress has been able to offset unrelated spending elsewhere in the budget. Thanks to this accounting gimmick, the HMTF will have accumulated a balance of $8 billion, despite an immense backlog of maintenance needs at U.S. harbors.14 Releasing the full amount of revenues each year (as proposed in the bipartisan RAMP Act)15 would reduce the amount of shipments that are affected by inadequate harbor depths, help meet America’s goals for increased exports,16 and make marine transport more attractive to shippers.17

Give Ports Equal Access to Transportation Financing

Congress should adjust the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, enjoyed mostly by highway projects, to make it more accessible to port operators. Lawmakers should reduce the minimum project cost for TIFIA eligibility so that lower-cost port projects can take part.18 Finally, Congress should adjust the current TIFIA statute to make investments in equipment that would improve cargo handling and enable liquefied natural gas fueling of vessels at ports eligible for this financing assistance.19

Temporarily Lift Barriers to Domestic Shipping

Congress should allow a temporary suspension of certain provisions of the Jones Act, which requires all vessels transporting goods between two ports in the U.S. to have been manufactured domestically. This law was designed in 1920 to protect the domestic ship-building industry and ensure that our military had the vessels it needed. Today, however, it can inhibit the establishment of certain domestic shipping routes. Congress should allow a foreign-built vessel, crewed by American seamen, to service these routes during a temporary Jones Act suspension, as long as the service operator commits to building a corresponding vessel in the United States. This would encourage domestic shipping routes while also bringing work to America’s struggling ship-building industry.20

Form a Partnership Between the Navy and Commercial Operators

The U.S. Navy should provide a credit subsidy to lower the cost of constructing a small fleet of commercial vessels that it would have access to when needed. Though the domestic freight shipping fleet is aging,21 building an entirely new fleet of ships is unlikely due to the large upfront cost and high cost of capital this would involve. At the same time, the Navy spends roughly $400 million each year to maintain a reserve fleet that it uses very infrequently. By subsidizing the construction of commercial vessels instead, the Navy would save millions of dollars in maintenance costs each year, while creating jobs in the ship-building industry and lowering the cost of shipping cargo on America’s waterways.22

Use Tax Incentives to Drive the Marine Shipping Market

Congress should provide a temporary tax credit to vessel operators on a ton-mile basis in order to lower the cost of marine freight shipping compared to highway shipping. This model has been used successfully at the state level, but on a very limited basis.23 A federal tax credit would allow these examples to be replicated across the country.