“Our Great Lakes and inland waterway system have tremendous potential not only to help expand capacity to move commercial
goods, but also to ease congestion, especially along our major Interstates and highways.”
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, speaking March 31 in Los Angeles. Mineta’s “new thinking” on the role of the nation’s inland waterways has been expressed also by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a white paper released in May on the “emerging container-on-barge transport (COB) in the U.S.”
“Highway traffic forecasts indicate looming increases in freight
movements that threaten to choke the U.S. Interstate system with truck congestion,” the report noted. “COB could use existing jumbo barges capable of holding 72 TEU (20-foot equivalent units) containers stacked three-high, thus taking at least 36 trucks off the road for each fully loaded barge. “Containers on barge are commonplace in Europe, where waterways are being used as relief valves for highway congestion.”
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey last year began COB shipments up the Hudson River to the Port of Albany as part of a plan that also seeks to make Buffalo a “feeder port” through rail shipments. The authority received federal funding from the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality (CMAQ) program to support the COB operation.
The New York State Canal Corporation has contacted the Army Corps of Engineers about collaborating on a study to determine the feasibility of using the Erie Canal for container traffic on barges, according to John Callaghan, director of canal policy implementation and planning. Water transportation promoted Callaghan said the corporation plans to upgrade its dredging fleet and bring the canal to its “original depth” of about 14 feet. He said the eastern end, between Waterford and Oswego, with connections to Lake Ontario via the Oswego Canal, might have the potential for hauling of up to 60 containers per barge, but the western sector would be limited to no more than 40 containers per barge, partly because of lower bridge clearances.
In Buffalo, the BIDCO Marine Group, on Ganson Street at the Buffalo River, is considering constructing barges, for commercial shipments on the Great Lakes, as well as the Erie Canal, according to Mark Judd, president and CEO. Edward Fitzpatrick, BIDCO’s manager of business development, said the firm is negotiating with “some of the larger Canadian lumber producers” to bring in lumber by water to Buffalo for trans-shipment via rail and truck. He said the lumber “traditionally goes to the American Southeast.” Callaghan said that container traffic on the Erie Canal would require “the construction of special barges to be economically viable and sustainable.” Deeply recessed “hopper barges,” which carry cargo at a lower level, to clear bridge infrastructure, are often favored for containers. It would also require, he said, a mobile system for loading and unloading the containers and “a very large parcel of land” for their storage.
The Canal Corporation recently joined a professional group, Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals, Inc., associated with Heartland Intermodal Partnership, a program operated by the Maritime Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation to encourage commercial traffic on U.S. waterways. Another member is the Port of Pittsburgh, also regarded by the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey as a possible “feeder port,” within a few-hours of Buffalo. A Pittsburgh Barge Shippers Council is analyzing the potential market from Mexico for COB service. “Many businessmen are surprised to learn that containers can be transported by water all the way from Brownsville, Texas — a short hop from Monterrey, Mexico, to Pittsburgh, deep in the American heartland,” noted the Army Corps of Engineers white paper. The economic advantages of water shipment are emphasized by Callaghan and others, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which reports that “shipping a load of coil steel from Pittsburgh to Chattanooga via the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers saves an average of $19 a ton over the cost of shipping the same coil steel by rail.”
According to the TVA, one barge can transport as much tonnage as 15 rail cars or 60 semitrucks. Critics say that barge traffic is too slow to be competitive. But the Army Engineers white paper declares, “Transferring containers directly to barges (from ships) makes the dwell-time zero, and even though the barges are slower, cargo can often be delivered earlier.” Containers that double as barges have been proposed, along with other technological improvements.
The white paper acknowledges: “Barges … have an image problem, which hinders marketing efforts.” John Cappellino, director of development for the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, suggested that Erie Canal container traffic would chiefly benefit the GBNRTC be involved in a bi-national Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Study that is examining “potential infrastructure improvements” to the system, which includes the “aging infrastructure of the Welland Canal.” Challenges facing the seaway system include the fact that “only 13 percent of the world’s merchant fleet (and 5 percent of the world’s container fleet) can be accommodated by the Seaway’s locks and channels.”
Environmental issues are also being examined, such as the invasion, via ships, of such nuisance aquatic species as the zebra mussel.
The seaway system has often been blamed for the decline of Buffalo-Niagara as a transportation hub by facilitating an east-west bypass. On the other hand, the observation is made that the increasing north-south movement of trade through the region
might portend a benefit if the Great Lakes should become a draw
for ocean-going container ships. Army Corps of Engineers statistics for the Port of Buffalo show relatively flat tonnage figures for recent years, with coal, petroleum, petroleum
products, cement, concrete, wheat, limestone, sand and gravel as major commodities.
Recent shipments of bulk limestone and mason sand to BIDCO were described as the first to arrive at the Buffalo River port in more than 40 years. This vision for the Great Lakes region was published in the Great Lakes Cruiser (email@example.com) magazine in an article by Jack Edwards:
· “The Great Lakes will become a year-round marine transportation system that is a model for the rest of the world.
· “High-speed ferries will transport citizens between U.S. and Canadian ports quickly, safely and economically. “Highly efficient container ships or container barges will operate throughout, or on portions of the Great Lakes, thereby greatly reducing congestion on our region’s rail and roadways.
· “Cargo will be moved at record tonnage
both domestically and through the St. Lawrence
Seaway with remarkable safety and efficiency. This will be done
with state of the art navigation, hydrographic and meteorological
systems. “A modern fleet of U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian icebreakers will keep the shipping lanes open during the winter.
· “International passenger ships, with no waste streams and ice-strengthened hulls, will call on Great Lakes ports as people throughout the world discover the spectacular beauty of these water.
“Although containeron-barge operations are unlikely, at least in the near future, to widely affect capital investment needs in
the inland waterway system as a whole, they could provide an added basis for a well-maintained, reliable system,” according to the white paper.
BIDCO’s Fitzpatrick said, “I have had conversation with a couple of people who are interested in moving containers not only along the New York State Canal, but from our docks here in Buffalo to several ports around the lakes. “The concept of moving containers by barge is just now gaining momentum, as it is always hard to change one’s ways of getting things done, such as moving them by truck. I guess the pure economics of it all will finally rise to the top as time goes along.