The Maryland Port Administration recently announced that the Port of Baltimore has been chosen for further study and analysis by the U.S. Maritime Administration’s for the America’s Marine Highway program. The program was designed to find routes along the Interstate 95 corridor where water transportation can replace surface transportation routes that contribute to air pollution and traffic congestion along the highway.

“Making better use of our rivers and coastal routes offers an intelligent way to relieve some of the biggest challenges we face in transportation – congestion on our roads, climate change, fossil fuel energy use and soaring road maintenance costs,” said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. “There is no better time for us to improve the use of our rivers and coasts for transportation.”

The project was selected for advancement as a partnership with the Port of New Bedford in Massachusetts and Port Canaveral in Florida. MPA officials said the partnership proposed the creation of the East Coast Marine Highway Initiative. The future plan will work to develop a marine highway linked throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southern regions of the U.S. The initiative would utilize new and existing fleets to transport containers and trailers to various destinations along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Baltimore’s port was among eight selected from 35 applications from ports and other transportation entities to be eligible to apply for immediate funding and further research. The Maritime Administration said that roughly $7 million in funding has been made available for these projects.

“I want to thank the U.S. Department of Transportation and Maritime Administration for advancing our application to further analysis and consideration,” said MPA Executive Director James J. White in a statement. “The Port of Baltimore is positioned in a very unique geographic location and is right in the middle of one of the largest consumer markets in the country. We believe this project could create jobs at our Port as it would bring domestic trucks and their cargo to our marine terminals. Instead of that cargo being hauled hundreds of miles by truck, it would be placed onboard a ship or barge and transited by water to its destination.”

As far back as the American Revolution the port played an integral part in the battle against the British. Today, the port is an integral part in the economic, environmental, and cultural sustainability of Maryland. It is a hub for jobs and economic growth in a variety of sectors including finance, transportation and shipping, education and tourism.

According to the MPA, about 16,500 direct jobs and $3.7 billion in annual wages depend on the continued viability of the port. In 2008, the MPA reported that almost 9 million tons of cargo passed through its waterway. However, 2009 and an unstable economic climate brought a decrease in imports, exports, overall tonnage and cargo to the port according to a study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau Foreign Trade Division. Those indicators decreased an average of 32 percent, though Baltimore ranked the 12th highest port nationwide for cargo value. If selected, the proposed initiative could bring much needed relief to the region to help alleviate the eight percent unemployment rate in the Baltimore area. According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate stands at 9.6 percent.