Boxed In: Container-on-barge services fight to fit into the transportation industry.

The idea is fairly simple. Move containers from trucks and railcars onto barges and shrink the carbon footprint while easing congestion on highways and other landside roadways.

Over the years, the federal government has helped fund and promote container-on-barge (COB) transportation services.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 established the Marine Highway Program. Its mission was to reduce landside transport congestion. The Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012 expanded the scope of the program to other public benefits of increasing transport efficiency.

The 2009 economic stimulus program provided $58.3 million for three early projects for buying cranes, barges and improving marine highway terminals and rail connections. In 2010 the Maritime Administration handed out $10 million for projects and studies, and there have been $5 million in grants available in each of the last two fiscal years.

Amid its winners and losers, the national effort to develop COB services continues in large part because of the nation’s transportation bottlenecks on land: choking highway traffic, delayed reinvestment in infrastructure, and the costs those impose on the public and private sectors.

“The waterways are the only mode that has any major capacity available,” said Scott Davies, director of the America’s Marine Highway Program at Marad.

Too many highways around ports in major transport corridors are at capacity, without enough money to make major improvements, said Davies.

“We just don’t have the money in the Highway Trust Fund … the waterways is the only mode” with 25,000 miles including 30 major urban areas, he said. “The system is there, it requires a minimal amount of investment.”

FINDING SUCCESS

Vetting Marine Highway Program proposals requires working closely with state transportation agencies, just one of the critical relationships that make container-on-barge plans winners or losers. Davies listed four major elements for success:

  • The community has to be on board. They have to commit freight. That counts all the players in a port — shippers, terminal operators, labor, workboat operators, truckers, local authorities and the Coast Guard.
  • The operational framework has to be correct early, with the right sized vessels for the job. “If you look at where trains were 20 to 30 years ago” at the transition to intermodal containers, “our industry, the inland industry, is in the same position,” Davies said. Initial shoreside investments can be modest, as Seacor AMH LLC has done at Memphis, Tenn., using a ramp and spud barge, with traffic warranting additional investment later on.
  • Public benefits are a priority, such as less highway traffic in the short- and long-term, and improving air quality.
  • Cost models must understand trucking and rail alternatives, so that a container moved by barge does not cost more than the same route via truck. “You have to get those costs into alignment,” said Davies.

In February 2016, Seacor, in cooperation with the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, La., tested the idea of putting empty containers from Seacor’s Memphis facility on barges and transporting them down to Port Allen, La., within the Baton Rouge port’s confines, where the containers would be available to a number of chemical companies in the area to fill with plastic resins. Once the containers were loaded and brought back to the Port Allen yard, they would again be loaded onto barges and taken to New Orleans where they would be loaded onto ships for export.

The service received a boost from Marad to the tune of a $1.7 million grant, part of its Marine Highway Program, which has the goal of expanding the use of U.S. navigable waterways to relieve landside congestion and reduce air emissions. Marad officials predicted that the Seacor service could eventually eliminate 12,500 truck trips annually.

Over the years, the federal government has helped fund and promote container-on-barge services. But for the private sector, it has been a loser. Photo credit Seacor AMH

Seacor’s Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans barge service has grown, adding Tuesdays to its schedule in February. Photo credit Seacor AMH

“We ran the test in February and started the service in June 2016,” said Rich Teubner, Seacor AMH’s vice president. “The cargoes are all plastic resins. Once we drop the containers off, some take a week to come back [to Port Allen]and others come back the next day.” Seacor AMH is part of Seacor Holdings Inc.’s Inland River Services group.

By the end of 2017, Seacor was sending five barges loaded with a total of 48 empty containers from Memphis every Thursday. In February 2018, the service added Tuesdays, hauling 36 more containers on the same route.

Consistent availability of cargo has been a problem for some of the COB services of the past. Seacor has a COB service that runs between Mobile, Ala., and Westpoint, Tenn., on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Teubner didn’t say what types of cargoes are carried on that service, but did say that one of the cargo owners closed most of its plant recently. “That service is currently tabled,” he said.

A lack of cargo does not seem to be a problem for the Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans service, now or in the near future. Referred by some as the “chemical corridor,” between New Orleans and Baton Rouge there are about 100 chemical companies, including big players like Dow Chemical Co. Consequently, the demand to haul plastic resins is high.

The Marine Highway Program provides planning assistance and funding to expand use of U.S. navigable waterways to relieve landside congestion, reduce air emissions and provide new transportation options. Marad image

The Marine Highway Program provides planning assistance and funding to expand use of U.S. navigable waterways to relieve landside congestion, reduce air emissions and provide new transportation options. Marad image

“This is not a service where we have to meet cargo requirements like some of the other container-on-barge services have faced,” said Teubner. “I think having only one type of cargo has helped make it a success.”

The service has also been a success for the ports involved.

Greg Johnson, director of business development at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, said the COB service gives local shippers another option for moving their containers to New Orleans.

“The service is continually growing, hence the need for twice a week service,” he said. “We were averaging 200 containers per week, we now expect up to 400 per week.”

Donnell Jackson, a spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, said petrochemical companies along Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi River have announced more than $81 billion in infrastructure investments.

“Industry experts predict an estimated growth of 400,000 TEUs of plastic resin exports from the Gulf region between now and 2020,” he said.

The COB shuttle service shows every sign of expanding, Jackson said. It continues to grow faster than expected, mostly due to ocean carriers, primarily CMA CGM, and large resin shippers who have recognized the commercial and environmental benefits of the container-on-barge service, he said. “Growth is also fueled by an investment in new plant and facilities in the petrochemical industries along Louisiana’s Lower Mississippi River, which adds to the region’s export capacity. The service also offers value to large volume importers who are looking for a container-on-barge option to Memphis.”

There is another positive the service has provided to the different companies and port authorities involved — jobs. “This operation has created new jobs that were not associated with the port prior to June 2016,” said Johnson.

MORE OPTIMISM

Upriver in St. Louis a group made up of the City of St. Louis Port Authority, Inland Rivers Ports & Terminals (IRPT), Mississippi Rivers Cities & Towns Initiative (MRCTI) and the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA) has been awarded a $96,000 grant from Marad to develop a plan for COB service along the Mississippi River between New Orleans, Minneapolis and Chicago.

“That money will be used to study the effectiveness of container-on- barge between these three cities,” said Aimee Andres, IRPT’s executive director. “We definitely think it can be effective, be successful. But there hasn’t been any money yet. We’re still signing the funding agreement with Marad.”

Andres said she expected the Marad agreement to be completed by February. “There is definitely demand for agricultural products,” she said, “and I think shippers will find that once there is container-on-barge their costs will go down.”

Andres said COB services support Marad’s goal to lower the number of trucks on the road. “We would really be swapping out long haul truck routes for short haul truck routes,” she said. “Drivers will still be needed to bring cargo from the water inland.”

Yet some programs that look like sure winners haven’t produced as expected. Even in California’s famously hellish traffic, barge rates ultimately could not compete with trucks on a weekly Stockton to Oakland interport COB service. Supported with $13.5 million in federal grants for equipment, the service only achieved about half the hoped-for volume over a 14-month trial, and ended in summer 2014.

Uncontrollable events are another danger. For about a decade Tidewater Barge Lines ran containers down the Columbia and Snake rivers to Portland, Ore. But after Hanjin Shipping Co. left Portland in 2015 amid a labor dispute, exporters scrambled to find alternatives for moving grain and paper to Asian buyers, and used container-on-barge to get to rail connections for other ports.

With the growth of container traffic and big neo-Panamax ships arriving in East Coast ports there is more optimism.

New Jersey-based Columbia Coastal Transportation, with barge operations in Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore, took delivery in 2016 of the 345’6″×94’×21′ Columbia Freedom, a 900-TEU container barge, the largest barge in its fleet of five.

Vessels of that size, suitable for short-sea shipping, can be a credible alternative to dumping masses of containers at one port and trickling them out by overland truck in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. Columbia has regular service between Norfolk, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The company has also made runs to Boston. Port and Marad officials are looking at other opportunities along the crowded Interstate 95 coastal highway corridor. One Marine Highway route between New York and Portland, Maine, has been approved, and Marad is reviewing a New York-Rhode Island route that would call at Quonset Point, North Kingston, R.I., a former Navy air station that has become a commercial maritime hub for the state.

“There’s opportunities for companies like that to grow on the East Coast,” Marad’s Davies said.


THE NEW YORK SHUFFLE

In New York Harbor, two barges stacked with containers are an occasional sight going through the Kill Van Kull, the narrow channel between Staten Island, N.Y., and Bayonne, N.J. The Red Hook Cross Harbor Barge Service shuttles containers around three to four times per week between the Red Hook Marine Terminal in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Port Newark, N.J., part of the massive containership and intermodal complex on the New Jersey side of the harbor.

The barge service started in 1991 as reconstruction began on the Gowanus Expressway, the urban highway through Brooklyn and a major freight truck artery. The cross-harbor shuttle was started to mitigate problems with highway access during the rebuilding. Over the next 16 years, the barge service moved more than a million containers, eliminating the need for two million over-the-road truck trips on local highways, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

About 70% of containers discharged by ships that call at the Red Hook Container Terminal remain in Brooklyn for further distribution, while the rest are moved by barge to Port Newark.

Containers on a barge inbound to Port Newark, N.J., through the Kill Van Kull under the Bayonne Bridge. Kirk Moore photo

Containers on a barge inbound to Port Newark, N.J., through the Kill Van Kull under the Bayonne Bridge. Kirk Moore photo

Depending on volume and vessel schedule, the barge service makes three to four transits weekly, carrying anything that moves through the New York/New Jersey port, “from the clothing on your back and furniture and appliances in your home or office, to the fruit and beverages on your kitchen table,” said Steve Coleman, a Port Authority spokesman.

For the New York metro region, the barge service offers major benefits to both the public and private sector, according to the Port Authority. There are savings in time, fuel costs and road tolls for truckers. For terminal operators, the service reduces cargo congestion, while the Port Authority and state transportation agencies see  reduced wear and tear on regional highways.

For the general public, the barge service helps to reduce traffic congestion and air emissions from trucks — an increasingly high-profile issue for community and environmental groups in the portside communities of Newark and Brooklyn.

Those benefits helped win a $1.6 million grant from Marad in 2016 to help improve the Red Hook service. Some of the money has gone toward buying three state-of-the-art simulators and two sets of interchangeable control modules that International Longshoremen’s Union members use to train for operating ship-to-shore and yard cranes. The training units were commissioned in late 2017 and a training curriculum is in the works, Coleman said.

Other Marad-funded improvements include a pair of new reach stackers for the Red Hook terminal, scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of 2018, and new protective panels for the flexible fender system at Berth 6 in Port Newark. That installation in spring-summer 2018 will prevent damage to barges when docking.

Red Hook is the only regular intra-harbor COB service in the port. Its future is tied to that of its surrounding neighborhood — where New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised the prospect of a new round of waterfront redevelopment.

Community groups and New York waterfront advocates have kept an uneasy eye on that possibility since a design firm in 2016 proposed redeveloping city and Port Authority property in the industrial zone there to mixed residential construction. In his January state of the state address, Cuomo called for extending a city subway line to Red Hook and moving the container terminal to South Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood is full of untapped potential, and with this proposal, I am calling on the Port Authority to accelerate consideration of relocating its Red Hook maritime activities to free up this waterfront for more productive community use,” said Cuomo.

Port Authority officials said they will undertake a new study of that potential move this year. In the meantime, container operations will continue at Red Hook, they said. — K. Moore

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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