The Waterways Journal
14 October 2013
In response to Paul Pollinger’s letter “Container Options” (WJ,
September 23), I offer the following. I have been following
container-on-barge ideas since first introduced by Dr. Anatoly
Hochstein of the LSU Ports and Waterways Department in 1985. There
have been many attempts to move containers on barges since then,
all with negative financial results. Leaseway in Cleveland, Ohio,
was one of the first attempts; also Osprey had a short-lived
effort between New Orleans and Memphis. There have been numerous
plans on paper of moving containers by barge from the Gulf to
Chicago, Pittsburgh, and other ports upriver, with no operators
coming forth to lose their hard-earned dollars.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Mississippi River is not
conducive for container transportation. The distances are
too far and it’s difficult to offer a definite delivery schedule
to container end users. There is no one shipper that moves
hundreds of containers where saving $200–$300 per container would
be attractive. Transits from New Orleans to Memphis take about six
to seven days, and in the present low-water situation, could be
eight-plus days. Tulsa is about 12–14 days, St. Louis 10–12 days,
St. Paul 18–22 days, Chicago 15–18 days, etc. Once a container
hits U.S. soil, the receiver generally wants the container within
a few days, not weeks.
In addition, the vast majority of container traffic is an
east/west flow, not north/south.
The other problem with the longer transit times, is who owns the
cargo while it is in transit, as neither the shipper nor receiver
want to keep their money tied up in the container. Also, many
companies operate a just-in-time inventory system, which is not
conducive to container movement by barge.
The Port of New Orleans has not sold upriver shippers “down the
river” and has never undermined container-on-barge. If
container-on-barge were viable on the Mississippi River system,
the Port of New Orleans would be “all in” to promote it, as it
would increase container traffic into the port. It is not the Port
of New Orleans’ job or mission to develop upriver
container-on-barge service any more than it should be developing
upriver fertilizer, steel, and salt barging services. That is up
to private industry to do the developing. If moving containers on
barges were profitable, there would be companies standing in line
to offer those services.
Comparing container traffic at the Port of Houston to the Port of
New Orleans is like comparing apples to footballs. Houston is the
10th largest metropolitan area in the country with 6.4 million
population; 240 miles to the north is Dallas/Ft. Worth, the eighth
largest metro area with 7.1 million people; 200 miles to the west
is San Antonio, 31st with 2.2 million; and 165 miles to the
northwest is Austin, 36th with 1.8 million people. So there
are 17.5 million people served by the Port of Houston container
traffic. On the other hand, New Orleans is the 42nd largest metro
area with 1.5 million population and Baton Rouge, 80 miles away,
is the 70th largest with 800,000 people. The closest metro area to
New Orleans (other than Houston) is Memphis (45th, 1.4 million,
400 miles away. A container trucked to Memphis from New Orleans
can go door to door in seven to eight hours, compared to six to
eight days by river, not to mention the double handling costs of
putting it on and taking it off of a barge and then trucking it
from the river to final destination.
One area where container on barge has been successful is the
Columbia River system, where several thousand containers are
shipped from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Port of Portland, a distance
of about 350 miles. There have also been some moves of containers
on barge from Houston to New Orleans and Mobile, that enable the
ships to eliminate the port calls at the latter two ports. Once
again, it’s a shorter, more manageable distance of 350 miles from
Houston to New Orleans and 500 to Mobile. Shorter distances and
thus shorter transit times allow for greater reliability and are
conducive to container on barge if the volumes are there.
The deepening of the Mississippi to 50 feet is not a waste of
taxpayers money, as it will decrease the overall cost of the
transportation of goods and cargo, which will ultimately be passed
on to consumers on the entire river system.
New Orleans, La.