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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

United States Marine Highway Program

The United States has a versatile and expansive network of navigable waterways, including rivers, bays, channels, coasts, the Great Lakes, open-ocean routes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway System. We like to think of this as “the United States' marine highway,” a network of maritime expressways having as many benefits (in some cases more) as the United States’ road network.

However, the United States’ waterways are underused. The benefits of using our marine waterways --such as reducing landside congestion and reducing system wear and tear -- are not perceived at the individual level. Using our waterways more consistently would create more public benefits and incentivize shippers to use these critical transportation channels.  

Marine Highway Grant Program

The United States Marine Highway Program (USMHP) is a discretionary transportation grant program administered by the Maritime Administration. Funds for the USMHP are awarded on a competitive basis to projects that provide a coordinated and capable alternative to landside transportation or that promote marine highway transportation.  Through the development and promotion of marine highway transportation, the program aims to relieve landside congestion, reduce air emissions, and generate other public benefits by increasing the efficiency of the surface transportation system.  We work closely with public and private organizations to:

  • Develop and broaden marine highway service options and facilitate their further integration into the current U.S. surface transportation system, especially where water-based transport is the most efficient, effective and sustainable option.
  • Highlight the benefits, increase public awareness and promote waterways as a viable (in some cases a superior) alternative to “landside” shipping and transportation options.

We do not directly operate marine highway services. Instead, we promote their use, efficiency and public benefits.

For information about 2024 USMHP funding, see the Notice of Funding Opportunity.  The application period for 2024 USMHP funding is currently open and will close on July 12, 2024.

Marine Highway Routes and Grant Awards

U.S. Marine Highway Routes Map as of October 2023

U. S. Marine Highway Program Grant Award Map as of October 2023

U.S. Marine Highway Program Grant Awards: 2010 through 2023

U.S. Marine Highway Program Portal (NEW!!!)

The U.S. Marine Highway system currently includes 31 “Marine Highway Routes” that serve as extensions of the surface transportation system. Each all-water route is designated by the Secretary and offers relief to landside corridors suffering from traffic congestion, excessive air emissions or other environmental challenges. View Route Descriptions.

So what are the benefits?

Public benefits include:

  • Creating and sustaining jobs in U.S. vessels, ports and shipyards.
  • Relieving landside congestion.
  • Reducing maintenance costs and improving the U.S. transportation system’s overall state of repair (wear and tear on roads and bridges).
  • Driving the mandatory use of emerging engine technologies.
  • Improving U.S. economic competitiveness by adding new cost-effective freight and passenger transportation capacities.
  • Improving the environmental sustainability of the U.S. transportation system by using less energy and reducing air emissions (such as greenhouse gases) per passenger or ton-mile of freight moved.
  • Improving public safety and security by providing alternatives for moving hazardous materials outside heavily populated areas.
  • Improving transportation system resiliency and redundancy by providing transportation alternatives during times of disaster or national emergency.
  • Improving national security by adding to the nation’s strategic sealift resources.

Port Planning and Investment Toolkit - Marine Highway Module

The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Maritime Administration organized a team of U.S. port industry experts to assist in the development of the Port Planning and Investment Toolkit - Marine Highway Module. 

The Marine Highway Module was developed to highlight existing marine highway services that illustrate, in a practical way, the promise and extensive capacity of the domestic waterborne system and to integrate marine highways into the national, state, and local transportation planning process.

This module is intended to assist port owners, public agencies and private entities with the planning, evaluation, and financing of marine highway services that can alleviate landside transportation challenges. This module is currently being updated. 


Reports to Congress

  • Report on Opportunities for Maritime Highway Transportation in the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, and the Salish Sea (November 2023) Section 3521(e) of the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23 NDAA) directed the Maritime Administrator to submit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the United States Senate a report on opportunities for maritime highway transportation in the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, and the Salish Sea. Additional detailed reports are available upon request. 
    • The report identifies several opportunities and associated implementation actions MARAD and other Federal agencies that, together, could expand the Nation's maritime highway transportation and leverage the new authorities provided in the FY23 NDAA.
    • Potential implementation actions include, but are not limited to, integrating the maritime transportation system into the Nation's transportation network; improving intra- and inter-agency coordination; promoting the environmental benefits of maritime transportation; and exploring partnerships with the public and private sectors to improve and expand maritime highway transportation. 

The Legislative History of the United States Marine Highway Program

The Marine Highway program was established by Section 1121 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to reduce landside congestion through the designation of Marine Highway Routes.

Section 405 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012 expanded the Program's scope to increase domestic freight or passenger transportation utilization and efficiency on Marine Highway Routes between U.S. ports. 

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 expanded the definition of short sea shipping to include freight vehicles carried aboard commuter ferry boats and cargo shipped in discrete units -- or packages that are handled individually, palletized or explicitly unitized for transport. 

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 changed the Program name from “Short Sea Shipping” to “Marine Highways.”

The James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 made the most significant changes to the Program. The most significant changes were to:

  • Rename the Program from “America’s Marine Highway Program” to “United States Marine Highway Program.
  • Expand the definition of marine highway transportation to include bulk, liquid, and loose cargo, as well as shipments from ports on Designated Marine Highway Routes to/from ports in Canada and Mexico.
  • Remove the Project Designations as an eligibility requirement for USMHP grants. 
  • Allow Rural and Tribal applicants to request an increase in the federal share.