WOODBRIDGE — New Jersey’s transportation commissioner is livid that a major shipment of rock salt, badly needed for state roads, remains bottled up in a Maine port because of a nearly century-old maritime law.

The federal government has rejected New Jersey’s request for a waiver of the 1920 Merchant Marine Act, which bars foreign ships from making domestic deliveries to U.S. ports. In the meantime, an emergency 30,000-ton supply of salt is stuck on the docks of Searsport, Maine, instead of being spread on New Jersey’s roads, during one of the harshest and snowiest winters on record.

Transportation Commissioner James Simpson argued that lives are being jeopardized by delays in delivering the salt to New Jersey. He said the severe winter has depleted the state’s salt stockpiles to critical levels.

“This salt should have been out on the roads a week ago, and it wasn’t,” Simpson said, referring to the salt that is still stranded in Maine.

Only part of the salt supply has made it from Maine to New Jersey so far. A barge carrying close to 10,000 tons arrived in the port of Newark on Monday night and is expected to be off-loaded today. Simpson said the entire 40,000-ton supply should have been delivered by ship in one trip that would have taken only a few days, but now multiple barges will be needed to carry the remaining stockpiles to New Jersey. He estimated it could take a month for deliveries to be completed by barge.

“I’m just ticked,” Simpson said while briefing reporters Tuesday after a New Jersey Turnpike Authority board meeting in Woodbridge. “This is a serious public safety issue.”

Simpson said he had a hard time believing that bureaucratic red tape could hold up delivery of the salt from Maine. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security refused New Jersey’s attempts to have provisions of the Merchant Marine Act waived to expedite delivery.

“I haven’t gotten a rational explanation why we didn’t get a waiver,” Simpson said.

Simpson had wanted a foreign-flagged ship, which was already docked in Searsport and was empty, to transport the salt to Newark. However, the U.S. government denied his request. Instead, U.S. officials allowed an American-based barge to make a smaller delivery of the salt supplies.

“This is not political,” Simpson said. “This is bureaucracy.”

The unusually snowy winter has forced New Jersey to dip deeply into salt supplies, leaving the state, some counties and some local communities dangerously low to respond to any future storms, Simpson said. He estimated the state DOT has about 40,000 tons of rock salt, far below the 120,000 tons he believes are needed.

New Jersey had a deal to pay about $500,000 for the 40,000 tons of salt in Maine, Simpson said. He estimated the cost will now soar to about $1.2 million because of the multiple barge trips needed to transport the salt to Newark.

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