One of the problems facing the United States is deteriorating infrastructure. Everything from highways, byways, airports and freight facilities are in need of some sort of repair, renovation or downright replacement.
Recently at the launch/commissioning ceremony for the USS William McClean (part of the Navy’s Prepositioning Program) Fred Harris President and CEO of General Dynamics NASSCO (NASSCO is a large shipbuilding complex outside of San Diego) spoke of the need for a National Marine Highway System . Mr. Harris made the case that vital part of the national transportation is being neglected – mainly the Maritime Coastal routes and facilities.
America needs a marine highway system.
What Harris is talking about is using what used to be called “coasters” – basically small ships to handle freight movement along coastal routes. His point addresses a larger issue – that our maritime industry has fallen on some hard times. As a nation that relies on sea power to extend our military and diplomatic reach across the world, we have basically relegated our Merchant Marine to other nations to build ships and transport goods. Our Maritime tradition not only extended from the Merchant Marine through the Navy and Coast Guard, but at one time, the world’s second largest Navy was the United States Army!
The problems, of course, are simple – we just aren’t competitive in terms of labor costs and building/maintenance facilities. Our Merchant Marine is highly unionized with the attendant costs associated with union shops – including feather bedding. We’ve lost our ability to produce the tons and tons of high quality steel needed for a vibrant ship building industry. And the same infrastructure problems facing our highway and railway system also affect the Maritime routes that already exist. Our intracoastal waterways system is seeing less and less dredging needed to keep it open and traffic flowing. While the Gulf system seems to be fairly stable in terms of maintenance, the Atlantic system is in dire need of dredging and width repair in several places along it’s length. The last time I brought a boat down that route (a 53 foot Viking sport fisher) there where places in the Atlantic system where we were plowing through the sand and silt – not a good thing for raw water cooled engines. Tugs and barges are also restricted in certain parts of the Atlantic system.
There are other challenges facing a new, bigger and better maritime system. NIMBY is a huge factor in the placement of facilities to off load or on load goods and raw materials. The recent contretemps in Narragansett Bay over the LNG facility is a good example. “Honest” Dick Blumenthal when he was Attorney General of Connecticut killed the Long Island Sound LNG/oil platform facility with misinformation and downright lying about the facilities impact on both the LIS ecosystem and it’s financial impact. Last, but certainly not least, access to distribution points are almost not existent due to the sale of port facilities to real estate developers to build hotels, convention centers, sports stadiums and private marinas. Harbor real estate is expensive and the competition is fierce to obtain and develop it.
Mr. Harris has the right idea – a strong national maritime system able to move cargo, goods and materials using our long seacoasts and river systems should be a priority. I’m certain private investors would welcome the opportunity to be involved in building small ships, tugs, barges and facilities – as long as the government and the Maritime and Port labor unions can be kept at bay.