The Cleveland-Europe Express In The Broader Transportation Context

(Brian Bull/WCPN)
(Brian Bull/WCPN)
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The Dutch container ship Fortunagracht left Cleveland this week, and headed to Antwerp with its Midwestern Cargo. The ship was embarking on the maiden voyage of what officials dubbed the Cleveland-Europe Express. It is a unique shipping option created in a time of great need in American transportation infrastructure. ideastream's Tony Ganzer speaks with Jon Fasman, Atlanta Correspondent for The Economist. Last year he wrote the article "Crying out for dollars--Underinvestment in ports and inland waterways imperils American competitiveness." Ganzer began by asking for Fasman's general impression of this week's Cleveland voyage.

Fasman: “General impression is that it’s a super interesting development. America’s maritime infrastructure, especially its inland waterways, are woefully underinvested in, and this is a new development that not only brings goods in and out, but with any luck can also spur downstream upgrades that the waterways desperately need. So I think it’s a great, promising development.”

Ganzer: “What do you think’s the greatest benefit here? Is it just the fact that there is somewhere else that we can load goods, or is it that maybe the Great Lakes are seeing a little more investment?”

Fasman: “I think it’s both. It’s another shipping route from a part of the country, direct to Europe, that didn’t have one. It’s great for manufacturers in the upper Midwest. And I think it’s a good question: I wonder what the benefits will be, whether it makes sense for European manufactures make that…trip. At least, I think we’ll see whether that’s true or not. I think that’s a good thing.”

Ganzer: “You talked about the general inland waterway infrastructure being underdeveloped, underinvested in, why do you think that this has been the case, or the trend at least, in the States?”

Fasman: “Well, that’s a good question. I think our infrastructure all over is very underinvested in. There was a report that came out recently about our bridges, that most of them are structurally deficient. I think it’s one of these things that it takes a huge amount of money, the improvement horizons are very long—it’s a tough political sell to say let’s pour, you know, $300,000,000 into something that we’re not going to see improvement in for 20 or 25 years, when there are all sorts of other pressing needs.”

Ganzer: “You’ve done a fair amount of reporting on this issue…in the East Coast ports, you do need the volume. I’m curious if, I don’t know if the Great Lakes shipping options play a role in that, could they be a band-aid or a spillover option, or is this just too small--we just have to invest much more in the bigger ports? ”

Fasman: “I think the Great Lakes port authority has taken an admirably long view, they don’t expect volume for a year or two. And I think that is what you have to do when you start something this new. We’ll see whether the volume is there or not.”

Ganzer: “If you were to say what is in need the most, in terms of an infrastructure investment in the shipping industry, inland waterways—is there a place that you would point to? Is it the coasts? The river systems?”

Fasman: “I think it’s all of the above. I think it’s the levees. I think it’s the waterways. I think it’s the locks. If you look at the American Society of Civil Engineers, they do this report card for various facets of American infrastructure, and the inland waterway system gets a D-. That’s as close as you can get to failing without catastrophic failure. And I think it shows improvements are needed on all fronts”

Ganzer: “There are skeptics, especially for this Great Lakes initiative that we’re seeing—is there anything they should keep in mind as this develops?”

Fasman: “Just to give it time. It is very new. These are shipping options that haven’t existed before. The port authority is taking a long view on that, and I think people should too, skeptics and boosters, just see how it plays out.”

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