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. 

Jeff Kindl
New Orleans, La.