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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

To: Route Designation | Grants

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.

The United States Marine Highway Program    

MARAD’s Marine Highway Program has one major goal: expand the use of the United States’ navigable waters. 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.

Current Marine Highway Routes

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

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

The 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:

  • Create and sustain jobs in U.S. vessels, ports and shipyards.
  • Relieve landside congestion.
  • Reduce maintenance costs and improve the U.S. transportation system’s overall state of repair (wear and tear on roads and bridges).
  • Drive the mandatory use of emerging engine technologies.
  • Improve U.S. economic competitiveness by adding new cost-effective freight and passenger transportation capacities.
  • Improve 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.
  • Improve public safety and security by providing alternatives for moving hazardous materials outside heavily populated areas.
  • Improve transportation system resiliency and redundancy by providing transportation alternatives during times of disaster or national emergency.
  • Improve national security by adding to the nation’s strategic sealift resources.

For a complete list and explanation of the public benefits, see pages 11-37 of the America’s Marine Highway Report to Congress (April 2011).



Port Planning and Investment Toolkit – Marine Highway

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.
Last updated: Monday, September 25, 2023