My colleague Armed Liberal's writings, and recent Popular Mechanics features, have talked about the state of America's infrastructure, what might be needed to fix the growing wear, and some of the innovative approaches being used.
Some of that innovation, however, is going to revolve around a different approach: not rebuilding infrastructure, but avoiding it. Take the highway system, for example. Yes, rebuilding and maintenance will be necessary. No, the system cannot reasonably hope to accommodate growing capacity. Space constraints, environmental laws, the "not in my backyard" factor, et. al. make that cause more or less hopeless. The system is predicted to begin "redlining" soon, which will have wide implications as highway freight tonnage makes up a very large share of American shipments. These shipments are also very fuel intensive compared to rail and water options, a growing issue as demand around the world keeps fuel prices high.
Norm Mineta, who wasn't good for much, seems to have had at least one good idea:
"One intermodal alternative is the development of a robust short sea shipping system that would aid in the reduction of growing freight congestion on our nation’s rail and highway systems.”
Enter SeaBridge, with the Pentamaran ship concept shown above. Their roll-on/ roll-off ship design will have a center hull and 2 sets of catamaran-like outriggers to create speed (up to 40 knots) and stability. With its size and capacity (170 trailers, or 100 trailers and 500 cars, plus 1,800 passengers), it would be designed to load trucks et. al. at one port, then zip them up and down the coast for offloading at other ports. The firm believes this option can transfer up to 800,000 truck trips per year away from the highway system. With its speed, it could actually cut transport time in many cases.
See the firm's web site and June 2007 presentation to the International Hydrofoil Society [PDF] for more.
This is a good example of wise government policy that lays the groundwork for private efforts, and serves as an example of positive cooperation. On Dec. 19, 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which contains provisions establishing a formal marine highway program within the federal government. That program will lay the supporting regulatory and legal infrastructure to smooth the way for companies like SeaBridge.
SeaBridge is focused on the East Coast and Gulf, but there's no reason the same concept couldn't work on the Great Lakes and the West Coast as well. The results would beneficial in a number of areas, from shipbuilding to highway capacity to energy savings to economic competitiveness.