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American Infrastructure Ideas: SeaBridge


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.

SeaBridge Pentamaran

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.


Sorry Joe, this looks fricking stupid times ten.

Trans-Pacific trade before the oil spikes has been trending to bigger and bigger ships having more and more containers. If you've been down to the Port of LA or Long Beach you can see it for yourself.

Some stuff is just going to have to stay local on trucks. The rest can be shipped by rail (usually inland) and various rail-on-the-docks developments have done just that, or go by truck locally.

It's going to cost too much, particularly time and money, to load something onto a truck, then onto another ship, in a crowded port, to travel up the coast to points north.

What this screams is a classic Mineta boondoggle to prop up uneconomic, uncompetitive ports that lose out to Mexico, or Port LA/Long Beach.

We'd be better off building more rail links to ship efficiently, at lower cost and higher speed, materials and goods on high speed freight rail.

I just don't see the crane capacity, even among the biggest terminals, to handle the messy business of loading containers onto trucks from a super-freighter, then roll the truck onto another smaller coastal freighter, for a slow sea journey up the coast. With extra pollution with idling trucks and so on, given the strict emission controls already enacted. The big issue though will be space and time. Both limited down at the ports.

It's an old idea, and it's highly likely to be bogged down in court by environmentalist groups, as will probably happen here.

Several local environmental groups recently called for an environmental review of the project. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration had determined an environmental review was not necessary.

I rode on a big ship that had railroad tracks on it, and trains drove on directly, to cross Lake Michigan in 1960. Trucks and cars drove on. Passengers had rooms or chairs. Traverse City MI to Milwaukee WI.

The Gulf and Atlantic coasts already have a marine highway, it's called the Intracoastal Waterway which goes from Texas to New Jersey. One of the pieces of that waterway, the New Orleans Canal Lock is listed by Popular Mechanics as one of the top ten infrastructure improvement needs. Note also from the Wikipedia Link: "Federal law provides for the waterway to be maintained at a minimum depth of 12 ft (4 m) for most of its length, but inadequate funding has prevented that. Consequently, shoaling or shallow water are problems along several sections of the waterway; some parts have 7-ft (2.1-m) and 9-ft (2.7-m) minimum depths."

One of the purposes of the Intracoastal Waterway was to avoid German subs in open water during WWII. I think there remains a strong case that homeland security should promote shipping immediately offshore. I can't tell for sure from the Sea Bridge links, but it would appear that the waterway will be avoided, and it would probably be quicker to do so (unless doing so increases security delays). But I think the first step should be rehabilitation of the IW.

I rode on a big ship that had railroad tracks on it, and trains drove on directly, to cross Lake Michigan in 1960.

The SS Badger was designed to carry railroad cars across the lake in the 50s, but today crosses the lake for commerical trucks and tourists. I bet it could be retrofitted if the demand was there. (I'm not sure it is)

I had started to book passage on this new high speed ferry a few years ago, the Lake Express but logistics overtook me. Looked fun though.

Paul Bea and Norm Mineta seem to have a cozy relationship that goes back some time. Since Bea is an "advisory" to SeaBridge, it makes sense that Mineta would push this.

Jim Rockford missed the point. It's not a lift on/lift off vessel (such as the larger and larger container ships plying the trans-Pacific trades referenced), but a roll on/roll off passenger and freight ferry designed to travel farther in a day than a truck can drive legally in a day and farther than most people would prefer to drive in a day.

What Jim pointed out in his post is correct: unless the distances by sea are considerably shorter than those by land, it makes NO sense to put freight on a truck, take it to a port, lift it off the truck and put it on a ship, then take the freight down the coast only to reverse the process. It does make sense when the road links are a lot shorter than comparable the land links and there is no rail practical alternative.

I suggest Jim read the links in Joe Katzman's article before drawing a conclusion that misses the point of the article entirely.

The real point is that this is a market driven option. If the route is faster and/or cheaper it will be used. If not, not.

As far as next generation transportation goes- flying cars are so 1965. Flying trucks- now there is an idea who's time has come.

How's the cargo zeppelins idea coming along? They seem (in theory at least) to be a useful half-way house between rail/truck and heavier-than-air cargo aircraft, both in terms of speed and in terms of payload.

Zeps also have the ability to ship pretty heavy loads around at fairly high speed, where road or rail transport can't reach.

Another possibility, for seaborne transport and also filling in a gap between conventional ships and air transport. That is the FastShip concept - essentially a ship with redesigned hull shape and using water-jet propulsion (maybe using MHD for the propulsive force) to get a cargo ship of reasonable size to maybe 50 knots without using too much power.


DARPA's WALRUS project (airship with 500,000 to 1 million pound lift capacity, no runway) was canceled without any explanation by Congress, so airships remain behind despite government studies that show them as very good strategic airlift option. That's too bad, because (a) airships also provide huge fuel benefits; (b) the ability to avoid runways is a big plus; and © even the proposed 30-ton capacity demo version of Walrus would have immediate uses in theater, as combat commanders are complaining that runways for the (20-ton capacity) Hercules are too far away from the combat zone.

I think the economics of airships make them more or less inevitable as energy prices remain high, and there are a number of industries like forestry, oil & gas, et. al. where increasingly remote locations and the limitations and costs of helicopters will begin forcing this solution in time.

On the military side, I see a lot of lurches toward airships, but they always seem to meet resistance and get little follow through. Existing programs underway include:

  • JLENS air/ground surveillance aerostat
  • High Altitude Airship surveillance craft with conformal ISIS radar array

There's also a Navy program investigating aerostats/airship for naval fleet coverage, and the Army is using some aerostats in theater for ground surveillance.

Ultimately, we may well see airships as the 24/7 AWACS surveillance choice for naval strike groups. Makes tons more sense than a $10,000 per flight hour E-2D Hawkeye, though you may still want 1-2 of those as an available supplement.

I will say again that the highest priority, due to having the best ROI, is to create a first-class fiber-optic network.

The US will have to spend $55B on this anyway, just to prevent the Internet from choking down by 2011.

That should be a higher priority than road repair, particularly since higher gas prices will lead to less driving and lighter cars, which will extend the life of roads anyway.

The Seabridge idea could work East of the Mississippi, but not beyond.

It is too much to consider going from Chicago to LA via the Panana Canal. Come on.....

[Monosyllabic comment. Deleted. --NM]

This may be useful between SF/SAC and LA. I-5 and CA-99 has become a near parking lot because of truck traffic between Northern and Southern CA.

If it could do 40 knots, it probably wouldn't be much slower than crawling a rig from central LA to Sacramento across two metro areas worth of traffic.

The big question would be the Pacific; the sea is awfully rough on the central CA coast...

Large aerostats could also be useful as the first stage for a space-launch system, or a series of them could be the base for something a bit more exotic; see this link:

Hard SF Stories

I have no idea how I found this; it's been in my Favorites since forever.

Thomas Friedman has an editorial on the same issue - infrastructure.

Link is here

A few choice paragraphs:

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.

And us? Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, just told a Senate hearing that cutbacks in government research funds were resulting in “downsized labs, layoffs of post docs, slipping morale and more conservative science that shies away from the big research questions.” Today, she added, “China, India, Singapore ... have adopted biomedical research and the building of biotechnology clusters as national goals. Suddenly, those who train in America have significant options elsewhere.

Of course, this is coming from the guy who advised - and hasn't turned back on it right? - that we pour the U.S.'s money into the sands of Iraq.

Still, the emphasis on U.S. infrastructure is something we all should agree.

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