The cost of the mega containership Ever Given blocking Suez Canal traffic exceeds $9B a day but the cost of bringing these ships into poor and highly populated cities like Newark, New Jersey is much higher.
gCaptain (OpEd) When a mega containership like the Ever Given docks in the United States its over 20,000 TEU’s of containers are dumped on our cities and the environmental and health consequences and road damage is enormous. Our poorest children are dying, climate change is accelerating, and bridges are collapsing under the weight of heavy cargo boxes. This problem is bigger because in a few weeks the Ever Given will disappear from Suez but our cities will continue to be forever choked with boxes.
Last week President Biden promised to help Egypt solve the Ever Given mega-ship crisis in the Suez Canal but did not address the mega-ship crisis in his own country. He has not appointed anyone in charge of the government’s response to either crisis and the person in charge of transportation problems, Secretary Of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, has not spoken at all about either crisis.
Months into the new administration, senior-level sources inside the Department of Transportation tell gCaptain they have made little to no progress in even appointing a Maritime Administrator of MARAD – who is the Commandant of the US Maritime Service and is equivalent to the director of the Federal Aviation Administration – and have made no significant progress on the last administration’s push to move containers off trucks and onto marine highways.
This is striking because both men promised to alleviate global warming concerns and fix infrastructure but neither has addressed the number one cause of both problems: the influx of goods aboard mega-ships.
In 2008 gCaptain first reported on the billions of dollars New York and New Jersey (or Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Savannah, Jacksonville, Miami…) taxpayers will spend for the privilege of letting mega containerships like the Ever Given dump tens of thousands of shipping containers at a time on our roadways and bridges.
Thirteen years later and the problem is worse than anyone thought but a new bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hopes to solve the problem by providing cities with $10 Billion to remove highways from crowded cities. The unanswered question is what will replace them? Will we move heavy shipping containers on electric cargo scooters? Noisy delivery drones? Elon Musk tunnels? The only logical answer is short sea distribution because cargo ferries consume one-tenth as much energy as trucks and one hundredth as much as drones.
In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act, launched a $25 billion program to build the Interstate Highway System. The law, which encouraged highway construction across the country by offering 90% of the funding needed to build them, left behind a horrific legacy.
How horrific? Led by the infamous New York urban planner Robert Moses, cities took the money and paved highways along waterfronts and through neighborhoods. According to the Pulitzer prize-winning book The Power Broker, men like Moses ultimately brought down on the city the smog-choked aridity of our urban landscape, the endless miles of (never sufficient) highway, the hopeless sprawl of Long Island, the massive failures of public housing, and countless other barriers to humane living.
According to Stanford, toxic truck emissions costs the country over $790 billion per year in health care. 90% of city children breathe toxic air every day and smog kills 600,000 kids globally each year. That is over 1,600 dead children every single day.
The number one source of city air pollution comes from trucks on the highways that Schumer wants to be torn down.
And that’s not to mention direct fatalities. In 2017, 365 million tons of cargo entered, left, or passed through New York City, and at the current rate of e-commerce growth, that number is on track to balloon to 540 million by 2045. And truck accidents have killed so many people that they have become Vision Zero’s “Worst Offenders” to city safety.
But will Schumer’s bill fix all these problems?
Konrad started gShip in 2018 to solve the very problem Schumer wants to fix. Encouraged by millions of dollars in local short sea shipping grants, he put together a team to develop ways to transfer cargo off trucks and put it on waterways in New York City.
“Schumer is focusing on the right problem but the wrong solutions,” said Konrad who’s company gShip – amid Covid19 and after getting pushed aside by local port authorities and development entities in favor of big business shipping – closed amid a pile of debt and little progress with local authorities last year. “Most bills like Schumer’s don’t even mention Short Sea Shipping. The money that is earmarked for Short Sea Shipping ends up being given to big companies that solve a problem that do not need to be fixed.”
According to Konrad, the problem most government short sea shipping programs try to fix is getting shipping containers off highways but this is not the real problem. Most of these containers are not even allowed to be transported into most downtown cities. The problem is not cargo going from ports to warehouses but cargo being distributed from warehouses out to stores in the city. The problem is also the local distribution of Amazon packages.
Just demolishing highways, as Schumer wants to do, without a short sea distribution plan in place will only increase local truck congestion.
In New York City thousands of large trucks bring cargo from New Jersey Terminals to places like Hunts Point food market in The Bronx but HUNDREDS of thousands of small and Less Than Truckload trucks and vans deliver food, packages, and pallets of goods from warehouses and markets to the stores and consumers direct. Distribution is the problem.
According to Captain Konrad gShip closed its doors soon after being denied membership in the North American Marine Highway Alliance by senior officials at Port Authority of NY/NJ and the NYCEDC but other small companies continue to crawl towards the solution with little government support.
(Author’s note: While we are highly critical of the NYNJPA and NYEDC’s actions here the truth is they are only failing because they are taking real political risks and doing real work for which they should be commended. Their mistakes are a result of having Skin In the Game, rather than ignoring the opportunity of Short Sea Distribution as most other port cities in the United States have.)
Bob Kunkel and his struggling Harbor Harvest operation hope to bring organic food from farmers in Connecticut to city tables autonomously via SeaMachines. For years Belgium based Blue Line Logistics has been working to build autonomous barges to deliver palletized cargo from New Jersey to construction sites along the local waterfront. And the MIT startup blkSAIL is working on plans to deliver goods from waterfront warehouses like Amazon’s in Staten Island to delivery drop-off locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
But all small short sea shipping companies in the United States are struggling or, like gShip, have already failed.
“We need to think outside the box” said Kunkle in a short sea shipping presentation last year. “We don’t need to get shipping containers from ports to warehouses, we need to get palletized cargo from warehouses to stores.”
All three companies also worked with UPS to bring overnight cargo from Newark airport to their large sorting facility in Manhattan. What UPS realized but politicians don’t is that electric trucks, drones, scooters and other technologies being given millions of dollars by Silicon Valley venture capitalists does not solve the problem of moving heavy cargo.
“If Amazon wants cheap one-hour delivery from Staten Island to Manhattan,” says Konrad. “They should call blkSAIL or Harbor Harvest.”
According to a recent article by Forbes, the missing link is Federal involvement and specifically the level of interest expressed by Pete Buttigieg, the new United States Secretary of Transportation. So far that interest level appears to be low. We are now weeks into the new administration and the only maritime appointment has been Lucinda Lessley who, according to her LinkedIn profile, is a Washington insider with no real maritime experience. More troubling is the fact that a search for her name with the words “short sea distribution” shows zero results on google.
Not good. “This is exactly what happened in the Obama administration.” says a MARAD employee who wishes to remain anonymous. “They hired a Washington insider, David Matsuda, as deputy administrator and didn’t hire a full-time administrator for years. By then it was too late”
“The United States Coast Guard could fill the leadership gap left by MARAD but the USCG Commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, is asleep at the wheel,” says Capt. Konrad. “He has shown only occasional interest in Short Sea Distribution or leading the US merchant marine, which the Coast Guard represents at the UN’s International Maritime Organization,”
Googling the term Admiral Schultz “short sea distribution” yields ZERO results.
What should be done?
During our country’s biggest maritime crisis this century, President Obama put a strong leader in charge of the crisis, and Biden and Buttigieg can start by doing the same.
According to Forbes, around 70% of the U.S.’ carbon dioxide emissions originate from cities, and 70% of this comes from trucks (road freight transport). Shipping has the opportunity to emit one-tenth of the greenhouse emissions of trucks and one hundredth that of aviation. So it is critical that the U.S. starts shifting both long haul and distribution deliveries from road and air, toward rail and ships.
In order to co-ordinate this multi-billion dollar transformation, one Presidential appointment is critical… that of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD). It would be inconceivable to go months without a director of the FAA yet the office of his maritime peer sits empty.
Working with Senators like Schumer, the right MARAD Administrator can transform our cities into green efficient waterway distribution hubs. Without the right MARAD administrator and without short sea distribution money being added to Schumer’s bill… we will just make the same mistake as Robert Moses. We will destroy what already exists without a solid idea of the true consequences.
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