Working waterway

Marine highway concept could bypass Chicago bottleneck

Posted on May 1, 2017 :: Up Front
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

SOMETIMES THE PAST IS THE best indicator of the future.

When it comes to finding ways to bypass the bottleneck of moving goods by rail and truck through Chicago, one of the region’s first super highways — Lake Michigan — is getting a new look. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-based Center for Freight & Infrastructure Research & Education says creating a marine highway from Marinette to Chicago could increase capacity, lower costs and reduce harmful vehicle emissions.

It would also mean fewer trucks on the road, helping to further ease the congestion.

“It’s really the best means we have of dealing with the congestion, particularly the rail yards, around Chicago,” says Dean Haen, director of Brown County’s Port and Resource Recovery department. “It’s one of the top priorities we have at the Great Lakes Port Association.”

It was the Great Lakes system that brought early explorers to the region and provided for the efficient movement of goods between the cities that ring the water.

While a lot of cargo moves on the lakes, that traffic is limited to bulk goods like iron ore, cement or ethanol. Researchers at CFIRE have suggested that establishing a container shipping service connecting the ports on the lake’s western shore could compete with Interstates 41, 43 and 94 to get goods to Chicago.

As proposed, the I-41/M-90 corridor would run from Marinette to Chicago, also stopping at the ports of Green Bay, Manitowoc and Milwaukee. While a water route certainly would take longer than truck, it could provide an economical outlet for less time-sensitive cargo, the report states. 

But what a route on Lake Michigan lacks in timeliness, it makes up for in capacity, fuel efficiency, cost competitiveness and reduction of pollutants such as carbon dioxide.

There is a significant hurdle that would need to be overcome, though, before marine highways for container shipping could become common on the Great Lakes: federal tax regulations.

The challenge is the U.S. Harbor Maintenance Tax, part of a larger transportation act passed in 1986, that charges a tax on cargo whenever a ship enters port. The problem is twofold: because the tax is assessed on cargo only if it moves by ship, it serves as a disincentive to move freight by water and encourages greater highway congestion; because the tax is paid each time a ship enters port, a container moving from Marinette to Chicago would be subject to tax four times en route to its destination.

“It is the issue,” Haen says. “We’ve been meeting with our congressional delegations and we’ve been close, but it never seems to quite make it.”