MARAD Launches 6,500 Mile Expansion of Marine Highway System in Alaska

Marine Highway Program
Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson at the Port of Alaska Bronson/Twitter)

Published Aug 16, 2023 8:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) announced one of the largest additions to its 16-year-old Marine Highway Program (MHP), which seeks to promote the use of waterways to support the growth of commerce in the United States. During a visit to Alaska, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discussed the new routes which include over 6,500 miles added to the system through the inclusion of the coastal and river ports in southwestern and northern Alaska from the Aleutian Islands to the Canadian border.

The Marine Highway program was established by the U.S. Congress in 2007 with the goal to reduce landside congestion through the designation of Marine Highway Routes. MARAD seeks to promote the routes sponsored by local government and private corporations but does not run the individual routes. The first designations were announced in 2010 and today include areas across the United States as well as routes that incorporate Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa.

The program supports the increased use of America's navigable waterways to relieve landside congestion, provide new and efficient transportation options, and increase the productivity of the surface transportation system. By working closely with public and private organizations, the program helps create and sustain American jobs in U.S. ports, shipyards, and aboard vessels while also improving the nation’s supply chains

The program which seeks to raise public awareness and support the local initiatives is undergoing significant changes in 2023. This included renaming it from “America’s Marine Highway Program” to “United States Marine Highway Program.” In addition, the revised program expands the definition of marine highway transportation to include bulk, liquid, and loose cargo, as well as shipments from ports on designated Marine Highway Routes to/from ports in Canada and Mexico.

“America’s marine highways are vital links in our supply chains, helping to move goods quickly, cleanly, and efficiently,” said Buttigieg. “By expanding our marine highway system, we can strengthen our supply chains, improve port operations, and help keep goods affordable for American families.”

Two new Marine Highway Routes were designated in the latest round for the program. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is the sponsor of the new route which is designated M-11 Marine Highway Route (Alaska). The secretary highlighted that the waterways of the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay, the Arctic Ocean, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta have been waterborne transportation hubs for centuries. Many communities in this area he noted depend on a system of ports, rivers, barge landings, and airports for the movement of goods and passengers. The M-11 Route seeks to enhance transportation in these communities and provide a greater range of waterborne transportation choices.

The second route to be designated as an addition in 2023 extends the reach of the Ohio River system by nearly 250 miles, adding the easternmost tributary rivers. Co-sponsored by the Port of Pittsburgh and the Morgantown Monongalia Metropolitan Planning Organization, the new route (M-79) will serve as an incentive for increased operations, infrastructure investments, and freight movement, especially for new commodities that will move on the water in the future. MARAD highlights the addition noting that local business interests in the region, including river terminals and operators, are looking to waterborne transportation as a reliable and cost-effective alternative to other forms of surface transportation. 

With the addition of these two designated routes, the program grows to 31 designated Marine Highway Routes. In 2022, they added four routes to the program. Once designated they also have the opportunity to apply for federal grants to support specific projects that enhance the operations and support commerce. In 2023, $12 million in grants were awarded bringing the total for grants to $91.6 million since the program was established.