Among the highways and byways that make up the tangled skein we know as the U.S. surface transportation network, there are some that are far more than just faceless strips of blacktop. One that comes to mind is the venerable Route 66, whose name resonates even with those of us who have never personally "gotten our kicks" on that historic connector from the Upper Midwest to Southern California's palm-lined shores.
Another is historic U.S. Route 1, which stretches from the Canadian border at Fort Kent, Maine, to the continent's southernmost point, Key West, Fla. Portions of that roadway date back to the earliest days of our country. In the Northeast Corridor, for instance, Route 1 closely follows the path of the original trails (and later roads) that linked colonial settlements like Boston, Providence, New London, New York City and Philadelphia (and later, Washington, D.C.). In parts of New England, you'll still hear the 2,390-mile river of asphalt referred to as the "Post Road," an old term for the route used to move mail between the original colonies' main settlements.
Though they may lack the scenic attractions and mystique of a Route 66 or a Route 1, even the anonymous miles of blacktop that constitute the U.S. Interstate Highway System are not without historical associations. Take the stretch of I-90 that traverses upstate New York. Though the average road-weary driver may not know (or care) about it, portions of that roadway run alongside the Erie Canal. One of the greatest engineering feats of its time, the Erie Canal represented a major artery for 19th century trade between the states. Eventually, of course, the Erie Canal and myriad other waterways so vital to economic growth a century ago were eclipsed by road and rail. Today, few still serve as primary routes for commercial traffic. But that could be changing. Signs have emerged in the last few months that point to a renaissance for the waterways. Frustrated by highway congestion and a shortage of trucks, shippers are giving the inland waterways another look. Just last month, for instance, Sappi Fine Paper shipped a load of pulp bound for Europe via the Great Lakes out of the Port of Duluth. It was the first time anyone can remember pulp moving out of Duluth by that mode.Not just in recent times, but ever!
Rail, with truck drayage at each end, had been the mode of choice for Sappi (and its predecessor company, Potlach) for decades when it came to moving pulp to East Coast seaports for subsequent movement to Europe. Sappi executives say shipping to the East Coast by water is now the most cost-effective and efficient option they have.
Other companies are coming to similar conclusions. Though it's hardly a wholesale shift, more and more businesses are putting their goods on container ships sailing from port to port across the Gulf of Mexico to avoid the congestion on southern-tier highways.
Companies like Wal-Mart and Home Depot are already rerouting some international shipments from the roads to water. To avoid the maritime gridlock at the Pacific Coast ports, for example, the retail giants are routing vessels laden with goods from Asia to the Port of Houston via the Panama Canal. Both have established large-scale DCs adjacent to the Port of Houston, through which they distribute the goods to locations throughout the country.
It would hardly come as any great surprise to learn that at least some of those goods continued their journey on inland or coastal waterways. With traffic on the nation's roads, rails and intermodal connectors stalled in gridlock, these waterways may turn out to be the path of least resistance.