OPINION: Metal Trades Department & Federation partners leading the way with new maritime highway coalition

Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

Distribution problems plague America.

Some will tell you that the core problem with American health care isn’t a lack of innovation but a lack of equitable distribution.

Others will tell you there’s a problem with wealth distribution between the top 50 Americans and the poorest 165 million Americans.

And then there are those who wax poetic about distribution problems within the government, the drug and farm industry, and even our families!

Alas, these all are weighty issues. However, there is one distribution problem that the Metal Trades Department and its partners in the Maritime Industry can and know how to solve: America’s supply and distribution dilemma.

That is why the Metal Trades Department is leading the way with its maritime allies to form the Maritime Highway Coalition, whose sole intent and purpose is to get the Maritime Highway up and running to alleviate our nation’s supply distribution problems threatening the recovery of our economy, its supply chain, local businesses, and welfare and future prospects of our families and communities.

The Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, in conjunction with the officers and members of our federation’s maritime unions and departments, have joined hands with the industry to form a working task force whose sole mission is to accomplish the task of utilizing America’s coastal waters and rivers to alleviate the embarrassing distribution crisis that has opened the nation’s eyes to the inadequacies of our nation’s supply chain infrastructure and untenable maritime policies that have opened the door to breakdown and failure in meeting the needs of American businesses and consumers.

Simply stated, the United States is a maritime nation. Our nation is blessed with the American Marine Highway, the world’s greatest navigable water and port system. The American Marine Highway has dictated the pattern of the nation’s development since its inception and was the thoroughfare of choice for trade until the end of the 20th century. Every one of our country’s original cities was founded on water. How is it that a nation that knows how to build ships – 2,710 Liberty ships built during WW II in only four years – refuses to acknowledge the efficiency that a fully utilized maritime highway can provide a nation struggling to meet the shipping requirements of its supply chain, businesses and consumers?

The Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, its affiliates, and skilled shipbuilding workforce is committed to working with our maritime and industry partners towards a goal of building and operating a Jones Act fleet of 200 new, fuel-efficient, and environmentally friendly feeder vessels for the American Marine Highway that will forever relieve container port congestion and gridlock, knowing that in doing so America will never again experience a catastrophic supply chain crisis of 2021.

With the advent and use of the Maritime Highway, our nation’s infrastructure will no longer be void of what has become the Forgotten Transportation Mode of Shipping. The coalition envisions, and our nation requires, that the maritime industry come together with the business community to alleviate images of fleets of large container ships at anchor waiting to be unloaded, terminals at capacity, stressed customs clearing functions and truck driver shortages that define just how fragile our supply chains are.

These interruptions have jeopardized on-time inventory systems, manufacturers’ reliance on parts sourced from overseas, the delivery of consumer goods that Americans count on, and much more.

Further, these delays not only affect our economy, but they also distress our foreign trading partners. In short, as the largest consumer economy globally, what happens in the United States affects the interconnected global economy.

Only time will tell what the long-term damage will be as we begin our endeavor to alleviate the distribution ills of a great maritime nation. Seemingly there are no quick fixes. All the much-needed improvements at the ports and transportation infrastructure will take time, but money exists in the new infrastructure bill to do so.

Unfortunately, America missed the Container Revolution, which is now the global transport platform of choice, with 70 percent of all manufactured goods being moved in containers. Future volumes will grow. We were not prepared, and today we are paying the price.

How does the world move containers? First, most countries use three modes of transportation to move containers – road, rail, and water — based on a hub and spoke system. The crucibles of the container business are reliability and frequency. Large ships discharge loads at modern container ports. From there, containers are distributed either by road, rail, or water, whichever makes sense and is the most efficient, economical, and environmentally sensitive. If rail or water are chosen to distribute from hub ports, trucks deliver the containers from the spoke ports and railhead depots to the final destination. Trucks are always the first mile or last mile facilitators.

Today up to 40 percent of all containers are distributed from hub to spoke ports by small purpose-built short sea container vessels. In fact, there are more than 3,000 small, environmentally sensitive short sea container vessels in use worldwide. We liken these small vessels to local Fed Ex or Amazon delivery trucks.

Regrettably, we have none of these small container vessels in the United States.

There is a silver lining in the present debacle, and that is to highlight and rediscover the significant value of our American Marine Highway with its 25,000 miles of navigable water and an existing port network. The American Marine Highway costs nothing to build and little to maintain. There are no traffic lights, bridges, or potholes on the American Marine Highway. Water dictated the pattern of the country’s development and is the underutilized safety valve that will add its unlimited transportation distribution capacity to our failing and at limit landside transport systems.

Importantly, water is the most environmentally sensitive means of transport in the world.

To mirror the world’s systems of moving containers from our hub ports to our numerous existing spoke ports, we must build small purpose-built container vessels. These vessels will become the trucks of the American Marine Highway with our existing regional (smaller) ports as the on-and-off-ramps. Our industry partners are confident that we can accomplish the task of building a fleet of environmentally sensitive fuel-efficient vessels in our regional shipyards, just like we did during WWII with our Liberty Ships. This effort will create thousands of jobs in our regional commercial shipyards.

Summing up, the container is here to stay, and so are America’s waterways. Inevitably, volumes will grow to meet the demands of growing economies and populations. Our challenge is to adopt the container distribution systems that have been developed worldwide. We have the American Marine Highway.

Now we have to use it!

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