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Marine Transportation System (MTS)

A well-lit port at dawn.

The Maritime Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and ten other Federal agencies, in partnership with non-Federal stakeholders, inaugurated a program to improve the marine portion of the national transportation system. The MTS initiative is a program to ensure a safe and environmentally sound world-class marine transportation system that improves the global competitiveness and national security of the United States. This initiative also supports the Department of Transportation’s goal to reduce congestion and other impediments to using the Nation’s transportation system.

What is the MTS?
The Marine Transportation System, or MTS, consists of waterways, ports, and inter-modal land-side connections that allow the various modes of transportation to move people and goods to, from, and on the water. The MTS includes the following:

  • 25,000 miles of navigable channels
  • 238 locks at 192 locations
  • Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway
  • Over 3,700 marine terminals
  • Numerous recreational marinas
  • Over 174,000 miles of rail connecting all 48 contiguous States, as well as Canada and Mexico
  • Over 45,000 miles of interstate highway, supported by over 115,000 miles of other roadways
  • Over 1,400 designated inter-modal connections

Important Facts

  • Waterborne cargo and associated activities contribute more than $649 billion annually to the U.S. GDP, sustaining more than 13 million jobs
  • MTS activities contribute over $212 billion in annual port sector federal/state/local taxes
  • Over 45 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) and 1.5 billion tons of foreign traffic were handled in 2006, with a value of nearly $1.3 trillion dollars
  • 99% of the volume of overseas trade (62% by value) enters or leaves the U.S. by ship


The future challenges to our MTS are many. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics the total value of marine freight is estimated to increase by 43 percent domestically and 67 percent internationally between 2010 and 2020. Ferry passenger transport is experiencing rapid growth in response to land-transport congestion. Commercial fishing and military use of the MTS also is expected to grow over the next several years.

The increasing demands on our MTS also must be safely handled and balanced with environmental values, in order to ensure that freight and people move efficiently to, from, and on our waterfronts.

Coordination and Leadership
Coordination, leadership, and cooperation are essential to addressing the challenges faced by the MTS. Information on the nation’s mobility, safety, economic health, natural environment, and security information must be shared among federal, regional, and local agencies, as well as private sector owners and operators. This kind of coordinated approach can more effectively meet the needs of the MTS than can piecemeal efforts by individual groups.

Marine Transportation System National Advisory Council (MTSNAC) – A primary example of a coordinated approach with the private sector is MTSNAC, a chartered non-federal body, whose purpose is to advise the Secretary of Transportation on MTS issues. Its membership is comprised of leaders from 29 commercial transportation firms, port and water stakeholders, labor, and Federal, State and local public entities. The purpose of the MTSNAC is to advise the Secretary of Transportation on issues, policies, plans, and funding solutions needed to ensure that the U.S. MTS is capable of responding to the projected trade increases. Today, the Department’s flagship initiative, MTS, is working to ensure that America’s marine transportation system achieves the national focus required to support the level of traffic expected in the 21st century. Further, the Department seeks to accomplish this goal in a safe, environmentally sound and coordinated manner for the full range of MTS users and stakeholders.

Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS) – The CMTS is the latest Federal effort to coordinate the myriad partners involved in the MTS. Chaired by the Secretary of Transportation, the CMTS is tasked to ensure the development and implementation of national MTS policies consistent with national needs and to report to the President its views and recommendations for improving the MTS.

The Committee on the Marine Transportation System is addressing a number of important issues that affect the safety, security, air and water quality, and the efficient movement of freight and people at our nation’s coasts and waterways and associated port facilities. The Maritime Administration is an important player in the CMTS and is leading an effort to provide key MTS information sources that will assist senior public and private decision makers as they make critical MTS investments and resource allocations.

For more history and background on the MTS initiative, please refer to An Assessment of the U.S. Marine Transportation System – A Report to Congress (September 1999) (click here to link to the report).

Updated: Friday, October 26, 2018