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Short Sea Doldrums 

Humboldt's entry onto America's marine highways has stalled

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Photo by Heidi Walters

Remember short sea shipping, that siren who lured us into a maritime reverie some years ago — a fortune-filled dream in which Humboldt Bay once again had a bustling port, helping to reduce transportation costs, air pollution and highway wear-and-tear? Where goods-laden barges — carrying more than just fuel and wood chips — made regular stops between the Port of Humboldt and other West Coast ports, taking thousands of trucks off the highways and using less fuel to move the same amount of goods?

It seemed a fine idea, a positively Humboldtian, green idea. But what ever happened to it?

Last week, seeking just such an update, the citizen-driven Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group gathered a panel to talk about short sea shipping. The upshot? While short sea shipping is showing signs of life elsewhere — between Stockton and Oakland, for instance — it's comatose here in Humboldt, and it could remain so indefinitely.

"I don't really see a near term — a tangible — opportunity right now," panelist Stephen Pepper, of Humboldt Marine Logistics in Arcata, told the group.

Pepper's the tug-boat operator-turned-entrepreneur who, in 2008, pitched the idea of a short sea shipping route between five ports — Longview, Wash.; Coos Bay, Ore.; Humboldt; Oakland and Long Beach. The route would be serviced by a barge that could haul containers carrying anything from bottled water to potting soil to lumber — just nothing requiring quick delivery; it would stop in Humboldt once a week. Pepper predicted this barge service, in addition to relieving truck traffic congestion on the Interstate 5 corridor and reducing truck emissions, would run 20 percent cheaper than trucking. The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District agreed to sponsor the endeavor, named it the West Coast Hub-Feeder Project and submitted a proposal for market research assistance to the newly established Marine Highway Program, which was seeking projects to help finance. In the end, the feds diverted a paltry sum — $275,000, about a quarter of what Pepper and the district needed — to a broader analysis of various marine highway opportunities along the M-5 corridor (M-5 stands for Marine Highway 5 and corresponds with Interstate 5).

Pepper had planned to get by with the Schneider Dock in Eureka, at first. Each port needed a modern crane, however, and the private barge services needed to be employed. But without the funds to identify specific freight and seduce enough willing shippers, Pepper said, it wouldn't be possible to secure yet more public and private dollars to foot the actual $82 million it would take to get the project up and running. So it was over.

"That was enough for us to say, 'We're done, we're moving on,'" Pepper said by phone after the meeting last week.

The district explored other short sea shipping ideas, and hired Pepper to write TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants to buy key equipment, such as a large, mobile marine crane for loading containers on barges, and a barge. The efforts were unsuccessful. The district couldn't prove that it would be able to drum up enough freight volume to make the costs of shipping by barge competitive with trucking. At last week's meeting, panelist Richard Marks, a harbor district commissioner, passed around a cost analysis specifically for barging lumber to Redwood City to re-load for shipping to points beyond. It showed that barging lumber, at best, would only match current trucking rates in the same freight corridor.

In addition, it would be hard to guarantee a weekly schedule, because barges are not good in heavy seas and rough weather slows them down.

The third panelist at the meeting, Stas Margaronis, from Santa Rosa, for years tried to get a small, fast, fuel-efficient container ship built specifically for short sea shipping — similar to ships used in Europe where short sea shipping now moves at least 40 percent of the freight, according to the trade magazine Seatrade Global. This smaller ship would have an on-board crane, and it would be able to move between ports more quickly and reliably than barges. Margaronis dreamed of a route between Humboldt and Stockton that could take several hundred truckloads a week off U.S. Highway 101. In 2009, he proposed building an enclosed shipyard and dock at Fields Landing for his small ships. He couldn't get the investors. Margaronis dropped the idea and now devotes his time to writing for the American Journal of Transportation. But he's still hot and heavy for short sea shipping, and points to Marine Highway 580 for inspiration. The M-580 launched last May, is where containerized goods, once destined to travel by trucks on clogged freeways, are now moving by barge via ship channel and the San Joaquin River between Stockton, Sacramento and the Port of Oakland. At the meeting last week, Margaronis seemed outraged that nothing's happening here in Humboldt.

"There's a big attitude problem that we're facing," Margaronis said. "So many institutional obstacles."

If Humboldt wants short sea shipping, Margaronis said after the meeting, then Humboldt has got to go to Washington in person and demand it.

Pepper said there's no doubt that all eyes are on Stockton, and that if it continues to succeed that could entice investors to similar projects. But Humboldt's a small, outdated port in need of major infrastructure — namely a large, mobile marine crane and a solid bulkhead dock that goes into deep water, or at least a dock wide enough to have multiple causeways for loading and unloading barges. And Humboldt's producers, including timber companies and sawmills, need a reason to step out of their comfort zone and away from traditional shipping. It will take federal investment to get them excited about trying something different, Pepper and others say. And maybe a massive hike in fuel prices — something harbor commissioner Patrick Higgins says is inevitable.

"If the U.S. government were forward looking, funding would be available for compatible infrastructure in all West Coast Ports so that goods and commodities could be handled efficiently at all locations," Higgins said. "This would help to cushion the shock of fuel price increases that we all know are coming and help improve air quality that has fallen to abysmal levels in the Central Valley and Willamette Valley (along I-5)."

But market forces, Pepper told the group last week, "are dictating that [short sea shipping] is not necessary at this time."

Pepper said it would be better, right now, for the harbor district and Humboldt to allocate their time and energy to more attainable opportunities, such as the aquaculture park and other projects proposed for the old pulp mill site out on the Samoa Peninsula. And it should find a way to build that modern dock. Then, maybe, the bigger bucks will come.

That is exactly what the harbor district is doing, says district CEO Jack Crider. Next Monday, in fact, the district and Humboldt State University are hosting an open house to show off some of the proposals for the recently purchased mill site, including an aquaculture innovation park. In the meantime, Crider said, the district is planning to design a dock and get the permitting process underway, which might better set it up to snag a federal grant to pay for construction. (Typically, federal grants obligate the funds for a maximum of two years, said Crider. But permitting, alone, can take that long.)

"Hopefully," Crider said by email last week, "in the next couple of years we will be in a position of having a shovel-ready project that can compete for TIGER grant funds."

The dock's construction could cost as much as $30 million.

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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