How To Revitalize A River Port: A Conversation With Jim McCarville

The Waterways Journal
15 December 2014
By David Murray

When Jim McCarville was asked to be the first executive port director in 1994 of the newly reorganized Port of Pittsburgh Commission - indeed, its first employee - he was stepping into a unique situation.

The Pittsburgh Port Commission had been formed in 1992 specifically to focus on larger “vision” issues shared by all tenants, rather than on managing its own terminal as in many other ports. That was not necessary, since Pittsburgh had about 35 flourishing private terminal operators. In fact, said McCarville, they didn’t especially want competition from a publicly run terminal, and were even a bit suspicious.

Not having to run a terminal freed the port commission, said McCarville. “When you own your own terminal, you’re judged by the bottom line. That’s OK—that’s one way to do business—but we chose a different model.”

 “The waterways in general and Pittsburgh in particular have long traditions of people working together,” said McCarville. “The local towing companies built on this tradition to call for the new model, one focused on issues shared by all port users, including attracting new industries, advocating for federal funding for the aging locks and dams, and helping terminals and clients secure financing from various government sources. 

 “The question we always asked ourselves, was, ‘How can we collectively add value to our region?’ ” said McCarville.

McCarville credits two Pennsylvania politicians with structuring the port commission. First was Tom Murphy, Pittsburgh’s mayor from 1994 through 2006, who also served two terms in the state legislature. McCarville credits Murphy’s long-term vision with helping to transform Pittsburgh‘s waterfront image  to a diversified urban-renewal showcase, with the port commission a key part of that strategy. Mike Fisher (a federal judge today), who also served in both houses of the state legislature and later as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, was the port commission’s first chairman.

Diverse Port Experience

McCarville was well prepared for any type of port role. After becoming acquainted with port issues as the ports liaison in the office of the mayor of Milwaukee, Wis., McCarville spent seven years as executive director of the port of Superior, Wis., and another seven years in the same role at the port of Richmond, Va., where he managed that city’s terminal.

In between, he also spent several years doing port consulting in Latin America, where he helped redesign port operations in Brazil, wrote rules for privatizing port operations in Uruguay and prepared both the U.S. and Panama for the successful transfer of Panama Canal operations in the year 2000.

In fact, McCarville was in Panama when he saw the ad for the Pittsburgh port director’s position in the magazine of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). Pittsburgh was looking to create a new kind of port, one that could serve multiple terminals.

The Fax Machine As The Bridge

The most important tool of the Port of Pittsburgh’s success in those years of the early ‘90s, said McCarville, was the fax machine. “Before the fax, when you got a lead on some cargo and used the phone to spread the word, and whoever you didn’t call first could justly feel discriminated against,” said McCarville. With simultaneous faxing, that problem was solved.

“It was the fax machine and how it fostered coordination that started me thinking about how new technologies could foster cooperation, how this cooperation added value to everyone in the system, and how there was then no single entity with the mission or budget to so focus, so the Port of Pittsburgh Commission decided to take a crack at it. Since Pittsburgh was at the terminus of the system, we determined that any improvement to the system as a whole would have more than a proportional benefit to the Pittsburgh region.”

Technology And Collaboration

“Our first initiative was SmartLock,” a virtual computer display of a vessel’s approach to a lock chamber, said McCarville. “It was developed with students from Carnegie Mellon University. We soon learned that for the display to be useful, it needed a network to duplicate the display at many locks. We also knew that no one would build a network for a single application, so we really needed to focus on technology infrastructure,” he said.

“So our next project with CMU, River-Net, identified the existing communications architecture for the river business - who talks to whom - and it also identified other parties who could take advantage of a communications network. This led, again with CMU students, and lots of federal help, to the creation of the first leg of what the commission now calls the Wireless Waterways Project Network and Test Bed. It’s a multi-frequency, hybrid wired, wireless and microwave infrastructure system The initial leg is a 100-mile long broadband corridor in the Pittsburgh region that is a model for how to roll out such projects in other river and port localities. It is intended to “become a self-sustaining business venture blanketing the entire Port of Pittsburgh district and well beyond throughout the U.S. inland waterway system.”

“The WWP-Interoperability Test Bed, located in the Pittsburgh Pool, is an economic and environmental development tool for technology companies to interact with towing companies and terminals to find real-world solutions. We think it is the only riverine-based such test bed in the U.S. and possibly the world,” said McCarville. “We have seen companies like General Electric work side by side with start-ups just a few weeks old and with the Corps of Engineers to test and develop new products.”

How Waterways Add Value

McCarville says educating the public, and public officials, on the value of river-based industries today is more important than ever, because it is no longer as obvious as it once was.

“Once upon a time, people knew that the waterways were the key to building our nation. Immigrants arriving at our coasts could come overland to Pittsburgh and then coast downstream to our fertile heartland. The Ohio River is the only known river in the entire Americas that flows east to west, giving us a tremendous advantage over the rest of the hemisphere. George Washington, a great promoter of navigation, recognized this advantage.”

“When cargo had to move by water, the cluster of highly visible jobs on the docks by itself justified public support for maritime infrastructure. Low-cost waterborne transportation still adds value today, but the jobs it supports are now spread throughout the economy. The waterways supply-chain network makes it possible for places like Pittsburgh, as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and other inland states to support entire industries, such as steel and chemical and all their suppliers, so they can compete worldwide.”

“We can’t assume, however, that it is enough that the public will support us just because we are lower cost or environmentally friendly. Like everyone else, we must continually earn that respect through work and innovation. New technologies help us not only add value to our bottom line, but to our nation as well.”

Cargoes Rebounding

The volume of cargo moving through Pittsburgh declined somewhat when CSX and Norfolk Southern broke up the Conrail network, but the shale fracking revolution is helping it rebound dramatically.

“We’re just at the beginning of the shale story in Pittsburgh,” said McCarville. The entire Ohio River corridor is a focus of much exploration by “downstream” industries like chemicals and plastics that use now-cheap natural gas as a feedstock.

The PPC helped secure hundreds of millions of federal dollars to upgrade the district’s locks and dams and over $10 million for terminals to upgrade security and towing companies to convert to cleaner burning engines, and has started a study of how the LNG industry and maritime industries can each benefit from each other. The results of that study are not yet complete.

Champion of Change

McCarville retired in June after 40 years in the port industry. Shortly before his retirement he was recognized as a “White House Champion of Change for Transportation” and received an “Outstanding Civilian Service Award” from the U.S. Army, and the “Meritorious Public Service Award” from the U.S. Coast Guard.

McCarville is enjoying his time off, which has included an extensive walking vacation across Spain he took with his wife. He expects to be “engaged in the industry in some way” in the future.