Economy & Business

No Truckers? Let’s Try Ships

Freight trucks on the road in Detroit, Mich. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters)
Repeal the Jones Act. It escalates the cost of shipping goods on America’s waterways.

Although the economy continues to ride high, there is growing concern that a dearth of truckers could soon drive it into a ditch. Anecdotes suggest an increasingly frantic scramble for drivers, with $70,000 salaries said to be insufficient to lure new drivers to the field. The trucking industry faces a shortage of 63,000 open positions this year — a number that is only expected to increase — and companies are already said to be turning down loads due to a lack of available trucks.

Some members of Congress have responded by introducing a bill that would allow drivers as young as 18 to transport goods outside the state they’re licensed in, down from the current age of 21. While a welcome step, more-expansive thinking is needed. Additional drivers are one solution, but there is another that should be considered: more ships. Rather than tinkering at the policy margins, Congress should pursue measures that would transfer freight from the nation’s roads onto its waterways.

Repealing the Jones Act would be a good start.

Passed in 1920, this law mandates that ships transporting cargo between two points in the United States be domestically flagged, owned, crewed, and built. Intended to bolster the U.S. maritime sector, the Jones Act has instead been a case study in the failures of protectionism. Absent foreign competition, U.S. shipbuilders produce vessels whose price is as much as eight times higher than those built abroad. This disincentive to the purchase of new vessels means we have fewer ships and a fleet that is old and inefficient.

High costs have inevitably followed and, along with them, increased demand for transportation alternatives such as trucking and rail.

The proof is in the numbers. From 1960 to 2014, the amount of freight placed on railroads increased by 48 percent while intercity trucks saw their loads grow by an impressive 217 percent. In sharp contrast, the amount of cargo carried by ships sailing around the coasts during this period decreased by 44 percent. And Great Lakes shipping declined by 43 percent.

In a more rational system, much of the goods carried by truck would travel aboard ships plying the country’s coastal waters. In Europe, for example, 40 percent of domestic freight goes by sea. In the United States the figure is a mere 2 percent.

Even as Americans have shunned ships for domestic use, however, they appear perfectly willing to employ them to conduct trade with Canada and Mexico. Freed from the Jones Act’s restrictions, coastal ships linking the United States with Canada and Mexico have seen their freight tonnage more than double during the same time period.

Given the decline of domestic shipping, Americans are now left with a transportation system that is hugely dependent on trucks — and on the drivers who operate them. According to the Bureau of Transportation, in 2015, trucks in the United States were responsible for transporting 63.8 percent of total freight shipments. For 2016, the American Trucking Associations places the total even higher, at 71 percent.

In a more rational system, much of the goods carried by truck would travel aboard ships plying the country’s coastal waters. In Europe, for example, 40 percent of domestic freight goes by sea. In the United States the figure is a mere 2 percent. While some of this can perhaps be explained by geographic and other factors, the enormous gulf between the two figures suggests that the Jones Act is a likely culprit.

Beyond helping to solve the country’s driver shortage, the removal of trucks from the highways would have numerous other benefits. Although a mere 4 percent of highway vehicles, trucks are thought to cause 20 percent of traffic, which in turn costs Americans many billions of dollars in lost productivity, wasted gas, and increased pollution. Trucks are also responsible for a disproportionate amount of highway maintenance, with a single 80,000-pound tractor-trailer said to cause as much damage to pavement as 9,600 cars. Representing 10 percent of vehicle miles traveled, trucks cause over 75 percent of the Federal Highway Administration’s pavement-maintenance costs.

Crumbling roads, meanwhile, are not only costly to repair — they are estimated to produce, annually, $109 billion in vehicle damage borne by the nation’s drivers. We need a more efficient and less costly transportation system. To help alleviate the shortage of truckers, let’s start by freeing ourselves of the Jones Act and taking advantage of our country’s underutilized coastal waterways.

NOW WATCH: ‘China Tariffs: We Can Do Better’

Colin Grabow is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.

Most Popular

White House

Trump and the ‘Racist Tweets’

What does “racist” even mean anymore? Racism is the headline on President Trump’s Sunday tweets -- the media-Democrat complex assiduously describes them as “racist tweets” as if that were a fact rather than a trope. I don’t think they were racist; I think they were abjectly stupid. Like many ... Read More
White House

The Trump Steamroller

As we settle into high summer and the period of maximum difficulty in finding anything to fill in hours of television news, especially 24/7 news television, two well-established political trends are emerging in this pre-electoral period: The president’s opponents continue to dig themselves into foxholes that ... Read More
U.S.

Men Literally Died for That Flag, You Idiots

The American flag’s place in our culture is beginning to look less unassailable. The symbol itself is under attack, as we’ve seen with Nike dumping a shoe design featuring an early American flag, Megan Rapinoe defending her national-anthem protests (she says she will never sing the song again), and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Ilhan Omar Is Completely Assimilated

Beto O’Rourke, the losing Texas Senate candidate who bootstrapped his way into becoming a losing presidential candidate, had a message for refugees who had come to America: Your new country is a hellhole. The former congressman told a roundtable of refugees and immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., last week: ... Read More
Sports

We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team

For the first time in my life, I did not root for an American team. Whatever the sport, I have always rooted American. And if those who called in to my radio show were representative of my audience, many millions of Americans made the same sad choice. It takes a lot for people like me not to root for an ... Read More
White House

On Gratitude and Immigration

Like both Rich and David, I consider it flatly inappropriate for the president of the United States to be telling Americans -- rhetorically or otherwise -- to “go back where you came from.” In consequence, you will find no defense of the president from me, either. What Trump tweeted over the weekend was ... Read More
U.S.

The ‘Squad’ Gives a Gift to Donald Trump

On Sunday, Donald Trump gave the Democrats a gift -- comments that indicate he thinks native-born congresswomen he detests should “go back” to the countries of their ancestors. On Monday, the four congresswomen handed Trump a gift in return, managing to respond to the president’s insults in some of the most ... Read More
Books

The Plot against Kavanaugh

Justice on Trial, by Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino (Regnery,  256 pp., $28.99) The nomination and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was the political event of 2018, though not for the reasons anyone expected. All High Court confirmations these days are fraught with emotion and tumult ... Read More