A New Highway Project That’s Environmentally Friendly? (Hint: It’s in the Ocean)

Voice of San Diego

Cars are unloaded from the Swan Ace at the National City Marine Terminal.

Port officials want to build a new highway from San Diego to Oregon, through the ocean.

Not one of concrete and asphalt, but a designated ocean route for huge barges to transport heavy goods along the coast. It’s a project known as the Marine Highway 5 or the M-5, a seabound reflection of Interstate 5 that runs the entire western coastline of the United States.

“Transporting things by barge is a technology that’s thousands of years old,” said Chris Clark, marine terminals business development manager at Port of Bellingham in Washington. “It used to exist on the West Coast but it kind of died out because of trucks, cheap gasoline and the interstate highway system.”

Since about the 1970s, barge transport fell by the wayside as nimble trucks took over the domestic shipping supply chain. Trucking has grown increasingly expensive since then, Clark said. And there’s increased pressure, especially in California, to cut dirty diesel emissions from the industry.

If you didn’t think barges were sexy, just wait. These buoyant babes can heft the equivalent of 70 large semis with less fuel, and they’re especially good at carrying heavy cargo like jetty rocks or lumber.

The Port of San Diego has at least one interested business, Dixieline Lumber Company, which wants a more direct and cheaper route to import construction materials from the Pacific Northwest, said Mike LaFleur, Port of San Diego’s vice president of maritime who oversees cargo supply chains, cruise and commercial fishing. (Dixieline didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) But other businesses, like Dole Fruit Company and The Pasha Group, which imports 10 percent of foreign-made cars to the United States, may also be interested in using the route instead of truck or rail, according to the port’s application to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Bellingham, along with Oregon Shippers Group and Port of San Diego together submitted an application to the Department of Transportation, asking it to greenlight such a route and help pay for improvements to their ports so they can handle barge loads, which can measure over a quarter-mile long.

What barges lack in speed – a trip between Bellingham and San Diego could take about two weeks – they make up for in size and efficiency. The port is fanning itself over that potential, especially as it is increasingly under fire from a public that’s sick from diesel-guzzling trucks choking neighborhoods between the port and the interstates.

“These truckers, a lot work for small businesses and they want to take a shortcut to save on gas, but sometimes they don’t realize the harm they’re doing,” said Julie Corrales, a policy adviser for Environmental Health Coalition who lives on one of these illegal truck shortcuts in Barrio Logan.

Residents of Barrio Logan have some of the highest asthma rates in all of California. Signs on Corrales’ street prohibit trucks over one ton, but that street’s also a direct connection between Interstate 5 and Harbor Drive, the main drag to the port’s industrial businesses. Drivers tend to ignore the ban, residents say.

Marine Highway 5 could solve at least part of that problem, port authorities say.

Officials at the port, the region’s commercial maritime landlords, view M-5 as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. One barge load saves 86,000 gallons of fuel that trucks would otherwise have spent, their application estimates.

Transportation – be it planes, trains or automobiles – accounts for almost a quarter of all the human-made greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the planet to warm up more quickly than is natural. And of that number, over 70 percent comes from cars and trucks, especially the big trucks that carry all the goods we buy and sell across the planet.

That’s a big reason why supply chains eye shipping by boat as a greener way to get your bananas from Central and South America to the grocery store.

“Moving freight by ocean tends to be less carbon-intense than by truck,” said Mark Jacobsen, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, in an email.

A big ship will emit .4 ounces of carbon dioxide (our most troubling greenhouse gas) to transport two tons of cargo one mile, reports GreenBiz. That’s half as much as a train, a fifth as much as a truck and a 50th of what an airplane burns to accomplish the same task, the outlet reported.

Jacobsen cautioned that while the proposed marine highway may reduce planet-warming gases, marine traffic, like trucks, still emits other types of air pollution of concern for these neighborhoods, like large particulates from fuel combustion and nitrous oxide, a precursor to smog.

“Beyond the levels of pollution, another consideration is the precise location of (non-CO2) air pollution,” Jacobsen said. “It seems like the proposed change could increase local air pollution around the ports while decreasing it alongside the freeways.”

In other words, the marine highway will still generate air pollution as barges frequent the ports more often. So, instead of being generated by trucks and concentrated around the freeways, the pollution would simply be concentrated in another place – the ports.

The ports are waiting to hear back from the federal government on their application submitted in January.

But the Marine Highway is only a piece of a larger push by the port under new leadership to cut planet-warming gases that contribute to climate change. The port is developing a Maritime Clean Air Strategy to reduce emission around San Diego Bay. It’s also joined San Diego County’s drive to become carbon-neutral by 2035, meaning the region would emit as much greenhouses gases as it cuts.

“I think this is the right time to set goals but also commit to specific projects,” said Michael Zucchet, the port board’s new chair.

Instead of waiting for the state to require it and make everybody pay for it, the port should be seeking out grants to go after and get ahead, he said.

If the feds approve the highway project, San Diego could use federal dollars to purchase all-electric forklifts, tractors and harbor cranes and charging stations. It could also purchase zero-emission electric trucks, something environmental health and justice advocates have been calling on the port to do.

The trucks could cut emissions in another, lesser-known side of the supply chain. Many of the trucks that roll through portside neighborhoods are actually carrying empty containers from the U.S.-Mexico border to be filled at bigger ports like Long Beach. Empty containers are in short supply up north in places like Bellingham. So San Diego is studying how electric trucks could grab empty containers at the border and make the 14-mile trek to the port, emissions free.

“Right now the technology isn’t there for (electric trucks) to make it all the way to Long Beach, but for short hauls, electric trucks fit that model,” LaFleur said.

If everything went according to the Marine Highway plan, portside neighborhoods could see less trucks rolling through on both the north and southbound routes.

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