Role Expands For US Inland Ports

Local, state and federal officials gathered in Duluth, Minn., in early spring to celebrate the beginning of a new era in Great Lakes intermodal transportation. Ground officially broke on May 27 for the Port of Duluth Intermodal Project, a $17.7 million redevelopment effort that will restore service to an abandoned dock at the western end of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway.

The completion of this long-awaited rebuild and expansion will enhance the Duluth Seaway Port Authority’s intermodal capabilities by increasing capacity to handle more heavy-lift and project cargo, installing rail connections for two of the four Class I railroads with access to the port, and adding enhancements for safety and security that ultimately will bolster the competitiveness of the entire region by increasing freight capacity via the seaway system. Port officials expect this first phase of reconstruction to be completed in fall 2016.

“It will be our largest capital project since the formation of the port authority back in the 50s,” says Vanta E. Coda II, the authority’s executive director. “Transportation is the elasticity of commerce, and the Great Lakes are great off-ramps.” The role of Midwestern ports is expanding in today’s global economy, as shippers seek alternate transportation routes. Inland port visibility increased even more during recent trucker shortages and West Coast labor disputes that snarled international trade at ocean-side ports up and down the Pacific earlier this year.

What’s more, in April, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx designated the Mississippi River a container-on-vessel route, which provides a viable multimodal solution to the country’s freight transportation needs, says Aimee Andres, executive director of Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals Inc. (IRPT), a trade association. The Mississippi River reaches 10 states and now provides a main stem corridor for container-on-barge shipping to the Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Red rivers.

The Port of Duluth-Superior isn’t the only Midwestern inland port undergoing major expansion projects that include rail-related upgrades. “We have to stay ahead of the curve,” says Frank Papa, sales manager for America’s Central Port, the St. Louis region’s only full-service, public intermodal port, which is in the midst of its $50 million South Harbor project that includes adding two rail loops to an existing 9,600-foot-long loop that will connect to the new harbor and provide access for six North American Class I carriers. “The completion of that second harbor is going to have a major impact, especially here in the Midwest.”

“Port authorities are seeing what’s happening nationally and planning for the future,” says Andres. “Economic development has been the catalyst for river port authorities for quite some time, and for the most part, ports are created for the main purpose of driving economic development through the advantage of infrastructure such as river, rail and highways. It takes all three modes for a port to be successful.”

Ports of call

It’s no secret that Chicago is the world’s largest rail hub. At least a dozen mainline railroads feed into selected terminals at the Port of Chicago, and all have reciprocal switching arrangements. But with the Chicago Area Transportation Study for years calling for the addition of more port acreage than the city has available, alternate options are clearly needed.

Which is why smaller ports in the Midwest are doing what they can to keep intermodal transportation booming, especially as the definition of “intermodal” broadens beyond the movement of containers involving two or more modes of transportation to include conveyance of bulk and other non-container goods.

What follows is a rundown of recent developments at key Midwestern inland ports and rail’s impact at each one.

America’s Central Port

Strategically located in Illinois on the Mississippi River, just north of St. Louis, America’s Central Port sits on 1,200 mixed-use acres that offer 1.7 million square feet of rail-served warehouse space. Major rail cargo includes fertilizer, grain, steel and asphalt products. In addition to being a hub for six Class I railroads, America’s Central Port also connects to the regional switching carrier Terminal Railroad Association (TRRA) of St. Louis.

The Port Harbor Railroad, the port’s own short line, provides 24-hour local switching and connections to the TRRA and Class I carriers. Several locomotives are stationed onsite to accommodate the increasing number of tenants requiring on-demand rail service.

For now, the port’s 6,000-foot North Harbor is the most northerly ice-free port on the Mississippi River. Upon completion of the South Harbor project located just south of Locks #27, that new port will be the most northerly lock-free one on the Mississippi. The project, which involves converting a former 800-acre U.S. Army base, “has been in the dreaming stage for decades,” says Ben McCall, a senior planner at the port. It received financial backing from a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The expanded rail capabilities are expected to attract trains in excess of 100 units. Although the South Harbor isn’t slated for completion until Oct. 1, Union Pacific Railroad already is conducting trial runs on the new track “to see how we’ll work it,” Papa says. “It’s a test for us, and we’ll pass it.”

Port of Duluth-Superior

Ranked among the top 20 ports in the United States based on cargo tonnage, the Port of Duluth is located at the crossroads of four Class I railroads: BNSF Railway Co., CN, Canadian Pacific and UP. Primary cargo includes forest products and steel.

Coda says the port’s current intermodal project will provide new access for BNSF and UP, giving the shipping community new options. Located on property that formerly housed a large grain elevator, the project has been in the works for almost 30 years and took five TIGER grant applications to become reality. In the end, funding came from a $10 million TIGER grant, the Minnesota Port Development Assistance Program, Minnesota’s Contamination Cleanup Grant program and the Duluth Seaway Port Authority itself. Completion is scheduled for September 2016.

The port will have 75 acres of infrastructure in place for one or more tenants. “We didn’t even make the radar screen for site selectors prior to this project,” Coda says, adding that interest from potential lessees is increasing. “We’ve already received some tire kickers.”

PORTS OF INDIANA

Indiana, whose borders are 57 percent water, ranks sixth in the country in domestic waterborne shipping, and the Ports of Indiana operates a system of three ports on the Ohio River and Lake Michigan. In 2014, the oldest of those ports — Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor — handled its highest annual volume since the facility opened in 1970. Total tonnage climbed 30 percent compared with 2013, driven by strong shipments of steel, grain and salt.

Burns Harbor offers a direct interchange with 16 different railroads in nearby Chicago, including Class Is, while Norfolk Southern Railway provides direct service to all sites on port property. The port’s strategic location at the intersection of two of the world’s busiest waterways and all of the nation’s Class Is provides significant competitive advantages for multimodal companies that locate at the Burns Harbor facility, Ports of Indiana officials say.

In fact, all three Ports of Indiana had a banner year in 2014, with collective tonnage surpassing 10 million and involving 60,000 railcars. “That will give you a sense of what role rail plays in our operations,” says Phil Wilzbacher, director of the Ports of Indiana-Mount Vernon. “We view our ports as multimodal transportation hubs, and access to water is obviously important. But that doesn’t override the way we view rail and road.”

To that end, each of the three Ports of Indiana will undergo rehabilitation of existing rail infrastructure, including the laying of additional track and the creation of more railcar storage — beginning at Burns Harbor this year, followed by Jeffersonville and Mount Vernon in future years.