Successful port planning

Several communities have recently expressed an interest in developing river ports. In part, this is a reaction to signs of apparent prosperity at other established river ports. 

In the age of intermodalism and seamless transportation, a “river port” may be just what local officials think is needed for a community. Moreover, there is an abundance of third parties available to encourage development and grants are often available to defray some of the costs. 

What are the ingredients for success?

•  Strong incentives. There are some significant opportunities for cargo and industrial development associated with river ports. While success stories abound, these are often due to a combination of diligent planning, sustained public support (funding) and simply having the facilities and land at the right place and the right time. In many respects, success in the river port business is all about presence. Without a port there is little or no chance for development and change in a river community. With a port, there is at least a chance for something to happen at some time in the future.

•  Patience and perseverance. The path to successful river port development is long and narrow. There must be a strong commitment from the local community. River ports, like shopping centers, need an anchor tenant. Paying close attention to important details such as landside connections and proximity to shippers that would profitably use barge transportation is important. Beware of rail shippers who would like to see a river port negotiate lower rail rates. They will not bring in many barges.

•  Cargo and capital. Cargo thresholds vary, but 100,000 tons per year should indicate that it’s a serious project. This translates to about 70 barges per year or about one every five days. If this volume seems high, consider that the estimated cost of building basic river port facilities is nearly $10 million — and that’s before a single ton of cargo can be handled.

•  Jobs and development. If the costs seem high, consider the possibilities for adjacent economic development. River ports usually have industrial parks with waterway access. Often, tenants do not use barge transportation, but they cluster in the industrial park setting for other advantages. A successful river port provides industrial park locations for a variety of enterprises.

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