Highway to the future

By Trista Crossley


One of the most important highways in the Pacific Northwest isn’t paved, but that doesn’t stop billions of dollars of goods and services from flowing up and down its length.

Marine Highway 84, or M-84, is comprised of portions of the Columbia, Snake, and Willamette rivers and stretches from Lewiston, Idaho, down to Astoria, Ore. M-84 was the subject of a recent conference in Pasco, Wash., that explored the economic importance of the highway as well as its role to contributing to the region’s clean energy future. This is the second year the conference has been held, and it was hosted by the ports of Benton, Clarkston, Columbia, Lewiston, Pasco, Walla Walla, and Whitman County.

“It was great seeing a room full of people exploring opportunities on our M-84 Marine Highway,” said Randy Hayden, executive director of the Port of Pasco. “Not only did we get to hear from established river shippers, but also new businesses exploring how they could shift their freight off of our busy highways and onto the river. With the state struggling to find adequate funds for highways, the M-84 is a natural fit to address our growing freight transportation needs.”

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), and Andy Juris, WAWG past president, attended the conference.

“The conference was a great event that highlighted the importance of the Columbia-Snake River System and many of the projects that have taken advantage of barging to transport cargo safely and efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way,” Hennings said. “The possibilities for utilizing this ‘green corridor’ continue to expand beyond clean energy generation, and the improvements in infrastructure along M-84 will help vitalize local economies by creating jobs, expanding tax bases, and increasing tourism opportunities.”


The conference’s first session focused on the importance of M-84 to the communities and industries that utilize the highway. Neil Maunu, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, emphasized how efficient the system is in moving goods and how far-reaching it is, bringing not only Pacific Northwest wheat to the coast for export, but Canadian wheat and corn and soybeans from the Midwest. In fact, the system is the third largest grain export gateway in the world, with approximately 60% of U.S. wheat exports transported down M-84. Other top commodities that move on the marine highway include petroleum, automobiles, soda ash, and potash.

Considering the huge amount of agriculture in the region, it’s not surprising to learn that M-84 handles more exports than imports. Much of that cargo either ends up or begins its journey at the ports of Vancouver and Portland. At the Port of Portland, Randy Fischer, a senior research analyst, said that while one out of every four vessels that dock at the port is there for grain, the port also handles other products such as limestone cement, chemicals, petroleum, autos, steel, and logs. The port is exploring a move to green energy and looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Port of Vancouver is the third oldest port in Washington. It handles a similarly diverse cargo mix and is also looking for ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions and increase sustainability by using renewable diesel when possible, implementing an innovative stormwater management system, and purchasing electric vehicles such as trucks, vans, and even forklifts.

“(The port) is the biggest economic engine that nobody knows is there,” said Lori Kaylor, commercial sales associate at the Port of Vancouver. “We are small but global.”

A people mover

It’s not only cargo that moves on M-84. A growing number of people are taking cruises up and down the system, and ports and cruise ship companies are investing in infrastructure as a result. 

Kristin Meira, director of government affairs for American Cruise Lines, said her company currently operates five vessels on M-84. American Cruise Lines is investing in new cruise docks and facilities and piles/fenders at several ports. The company plans to do a stream mitigation project to offset some of that work. They are also exploring ways to link up with local companies and tribal partners. The impact of cruise passengers extends to other parts of the transportation system — Meira said 30% of passenger volume at the Lewiston airport comes from river cruisers.

High, wide, and heavy

At the opposite end of the cargo spectrum from people are items that are unusually high, wide, and/or heavy, such as the components needed for manufacturing, construction, and green power generation and distribution — think wind turbine blades. An economic study estimated that in 2021, 53% of the 161,000 tons that moved into the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest, and Canada from the Gulf Coast could have been moved more cost effectively using M-84. The annual economic impact of that tonnage was estimated at 719 direct and indirect jobs, $30 million of direct business revenue, and almost $8 million in state and local taxes.

One project that showcased the potential benefits of using M-84 to transport high, wide, heavy loads was a wind farm project in Alberta, Canada. Parts were shipped to deep-water ports in Longview or Vancouver and moved through four states and one Canadian province. Laurie Nelson-Cooley, manager of business development at the Port of Longview, said initial project planning estimated it would take approximately 775 truckloads to move all the components to the project site in Canada. Besides the logistics of moving football field-sized turbine blades along crowded urban freeways and through twisty mountain roads, they also had to deal with limited rest area opportunities for drivers and obtaining permits from the four states and province. The solution was to use M-84 to barge all the tower sections and blades to Lewiston and then load them onto trucks for the rest of the journey. 

Justin Valley, director of business development for Foss Maritime, said using M-84 allowed them to bypass Department of Transportation restrictions on I-84, reduce the number of truckloads needed, and avoid areas with limited rest opportunities for drivers. Using the river system reduced turnaround time for drivers and eliminated the risks of oversized loads moving through populated areas.

A ‘green’ corridor

While there is no formal definition of a green shipping corridor, it is generally used to mean a zero-emission maritime route between two ports. There are 22 designated green shipping corridors in the world, but none in the domestic U.S.

Stephanie Bowman, maritime industry sector lead for the Washington State Department of Commerce, said there are multiple ways to achieve a decarbonized corridor beyond just vessels and fuel. Other means could include energy efficiency and operation optimization, cargo handling equipment that uses renewable fuel, the types of cargo moved, etc. Decarbonizing the M-84 could provide new business opportunities and help highlight the importance of the system as a critical shipping corridor.

Two companies that are taking steps towards reducing emissions are Tidewater Barge Lines and Atlas Agro. Tidewater owns and operates five terminals and two pipelines in the Pacific Northwest and is a huge supplier of fuel in the region. They are upgrading their terminals to be able to handle more biofuels. Atlas Agro is building a green nitrogen fertilizer plant in Richland that will use electrolysis to make fertilizer components. Derek Van Arsdale, a project manager for Atlas Agro, said the M-84 corridor was one of the primary drivers that sold Richland as a site.