The Baltimore Sun

Transportation authorities recently closed a two-mile elevated section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia for several days to conduct emergency repairs after discovering a 6-foot crack in a concrete support pillar. Luckily, a highway inspector noticed the widening crack and helped avert a tragic collapse such as the nation witnessed in Minneapolis last August. Baltimore is also at high risk to suffer a catastrophe from crumbling infrastructure due to the confluence of six aging major highway systems.

When it comes to transportation planning, we need a detour from the usual remedy of building highways - a detour that removes traffic from the roads altogether and onto one of our most under-utilized transportation resources: the sea.

The incidents in Minneapolis and Philadelphia illustrate the fragility of our nation's interstate highway system and its vulnerability to disruption by terrorist attack, natural disaster or collapse from overuse and lack of maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rates over 25 percent of our country's 599,893 bridges as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

This situation threatens the daily commute of millions of Americans and the constant flow of goods upon which our just-in-time economy depends. And growing traffic volumes will add further strain on our interstate highway system. According to forecasts, U.S. freight tonnage will increase by 70 percent between 1998 and 2020, with trucks handling most of the increase.

Expanding the highway system to accommodate more traffic is expensive. The ASCE estimates that improving the nation's surface transportation infrastructure would require $155.5 billion annually. Contrast this with the Federal Highway Administration's budget of $40.1 billion for fiscal year 2009. We simply have not allocated sufficient resources to pave our way out of this challenge.

Fortunately, America has another, now virtually unused medium of transport. For interstate highways paralleling our shores, coastal shipping offers us a splendid alternative and a great entrepreneurial opportunity.

Marine highways do not need periodic resurfacing or massive land acquisition for expansion. They only require relatively small investments at each port terminal. Increased coastal shipping would also provide a new resilience to our transportation network, thereby contributing to national security.

Moreover, an alternative transport mode for heavy trucks would slow the aging process of the interstate highway system. According to a Federal Highway Administration study, trucks were responsible for 40 percent of the agency's program costs while accounting for less than 10 percent of total vehicle miles traveled. We must extend the useful life of our interstate highways as long as possible.

We might begin simply by putting trucks on ships. The shipping industry already builds vessels for that purpose, and the shore facilities for such ships are relatively simple and cheap. Trucking companies, struggling with the shortage of drivers, should welcome the opportunity to move long-haul trailers from one port to another. And they too would be pleased with less congestion on the coastal interstates.

The new marine medium would be a source of new jobs, both at sea and on shore. Furthermore, studies have shown that ships have the potential to carry three times more cargo per unit of energy consumed than trucks do. Thus they can cut transport costs and lower prices across the market, with benefit to both producer and consumer.

And, it gets better: New "green" propulsion systems, such as marine engines fueled by compressed natural gas, offer even lower emissions and better air quality. No more choking on diesel fumes; everyone benefits.

The creaking infrastructure under I-95 near Philadelphia should be a wake-up call. The U.S. needs to find innovative ways to move heavy trucks off our strained interstate highway system.

If we do nothing, increased traffic flows will lead to total gridlock. Frighteningly, the drive from Baltimore to D.C. - hardly enjoyable at the moment - could get even worse. Coastal shipping presents a more affordable alternative than adding yet more lanes to interstate highways or railroads along our shores. Marine highways are the taxpayers' best return on investment.

Rockford Weitz is a fellow in the Maritime Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Tufts University. Scott G. Borgerson is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. John Curtis Perry directs Fletcher's Maritime Studies Program.

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