BlueWater Reporting takes a deep dive into the Mississippi River’s importance in global commerce and the future of container vessels on the waterway.
The Mississippi River is playing an increasingly important role in global commerce as volumes shipped on the waterway continue to rise, while plans to deploy container vessels on the river and dredge the lower portion to 50 feet, will help to further maximize its potential in the coming years.
In 2017, 552 million tons moved on the Mississippi River, up from 526 million tons in 2016 and 521 million tons in 2015, as illustrated in the chart below, which was built using data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The Mississippi River connects the Gulf of Mexico with America’s heartland, a region that plays a crucial role in intermodal operations across the nation. Additionally, the river connects to various tributary rivers that play a key role in shipping. Major cities along the Mississippi River include New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The Mississippi River supports American jobs, often provides a cheaper option for moving goods, offers a more fuel-efficient option for shipping goods, helps cut down on rail and truck congestion, which was a huge problem throughout 2018 in particular, and also can aid in reducing pollution.
The river has an estimated $735.7 billion annual impact on the nation’s economy and is responsible for about 2.4 million jobs, according to the Big River Coalition, which represents commerce across the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Because of the river’s importance in commerce, just one unplanned lock outage potentially could wreak havoc on global supply chains. For instance, an unplanned outage at Lock & Dam 25 on the river, which is located northwest of St. Louis, would immediately affect commerce in 132 counties in 17 states, according to a study conducted for the National Waterways Foundation and the U.S. Maritime Administration by the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University. The study, titled, “The Impacts of Unscheduled Lock Outages,” which was released in November 2017, said that more than 10 million tons of corn and soybeans transit the lock down-bound for export each year, while fertilizer movements account for over 4 million tons of the lock’s up-bound traffic. The lock, which is primarily utilized by the agricultural industry, moves about 22.3 million tons each year.
“A typical inland barge has a capacity 15 times greater than one railcar and 60 times greater than one semitrailer truck, and one 15 barge-tow can move the equivalent of 216 railcars or 1,050 semitrailer trucks,” according to the American Waterways Operators, which represents the tugboat, towboat and barge industry. Additionally, the National Waterways Foundation noted that railway transport generates 30 percent more carbon dioxide than barge transport, while highway transport generates 1,000 percent more emissions than barge transport.
From Barge to Container Vessel. The Mississippi River, as well as its tributary rivers, are slated to become home to American Patriot Container Transport’s (APCT) future container vessels, which will transport cargo much faster than barges that currently operate on the rivers.
APCT, a wholly owned subsidiary of American Patriot Holdings (APH), had entered into an “exclusivity agreement” in March 2017 with Plaquemines Port Harbor & Terminal District (PPHTD) in southern Louisiana for a logistics system in which these container vessels will dock at a future container port being planned in Plaquemines and multiple upriver terminals.
PPHTD’s new container port, which will be located between miles 50 and 55 on the Mississippi River, will be the southernmost full-service port complex on the river and will be able to handle vessels up to 20,000 TEUs, according to a joint press release issued in March 2017 by APH and PPHTD.
The container terminal will comprise 1,000 acres of the new 4,200-acre port complex, which also will consist of an $8.5 billion liquefied natural gas reliquefication facility and a breakbulk terminal.
Containers imported to Plaquemines would be transferred to APCT’s vessels for delivery to their upriver port destination, while export containers will be delivered from upriver ports to Plaquemines for export on ocean carriers, according to PPHTD Executive Director Sandy Sanders. “Beneficial cargo owners and carriers alike should look at the planned port as a solution to their logistics problems and the high intermodal costs that plague them today,” he said. “Cargo flows through the most efficient economical route and our plans are to provide shorter dwell times, lowest cost, with fast and reliable routes.”
The joint press release also said that “APCT expects to attract shippers and ocean carriers to this system by offering unparalleled cost efficiencies for agricultural products, refrigerated cargoes, dry cargoes and chemicals.”
Sanders told BlueWater Reporting in December that he expects construction on the container terminal will start in about 12 months, with the first phase taking about three years.
An APH spokesperson also told BlueWater Reporting in December that these vessels consist of two designs, a 2,400-TEU model that will strictly operate on the Mississippi River and a 1,700-TEU hybrid vessel that will serve the Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio rivers.
APH will be looking at potential shipyards in the first quarter of 2019, and once a shipyard is selected and a contract is officially signed, it will take about two years to build the first vessel, while the subsequent vessels will each take three to four months to build, the spokesperson said.
APH is planning to have two vessels of each design built at first, and after that, it will be based on demand.
The spokesperson also said APH has finalized contracts with ports in Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis, Kansas City and Jefferson City, Mo. Contracts with ports in Joliet, Ill., and Little Rock, Ark., are in the works.
APH previously noted that barges can capsize due to stability issues, offer a limited cargo payload capacity and have limited speeds under way and at terminals. Additionally, the company noted that barge breakaways can damage bridges, locks, terminals and other vessels and can cause challenges when navigating turns.
APH’s spokesperson said that while regular tug and barges move at 4 to 5 miles per hour, both of APH’s vessel designs can move at speeds of 13 miles per hour.
APH’s 2,400-TEU vessel design that will be operating on the Mississippi River will allow for round trips of about six days between Plaquemines and Memphis and round trips of about 10 days between Plaquemines and St. Louis.
Additionally, a report produced for the Soy Transportation Coalition and the Illinois Soybean Association by Informa’s Agribusiness Consulting looked at three different logistics scenarios for the transport of agricultural products from Memphis to a final export destination in China. The report, which was released in October 2018, is called, “Containerized Exports via the Inland Waterway System: An Opportunity for Agriculture?”
These three scenarios were APH’s system in which cargo moves down the Mississippi River on its container vessel and is transported to an ocean carrier at Plaquemines for shipment to China; an intermodal system in which the cargo arrives via rail in Los Angeles and is then transported to an ocean carrier for transport to China; and the bulk barge system in which the cargo moves down the Mississippi River to New Orleans for loading onto a bulk vessel for its voyage to China.
The chart below, which was constructed using data from the report, illustrates that APH’s system is significantly faster than the other two options.
“Fully automated and efficient terminals at PPHTD and upriver terminals along the inland waterway system allow for fewer transit delays than rail movements, due mostly to dwell time delays at West Coast ports and inefficiencies resulting from larger container vessels delivering high container counts,” the report said.
Although APH’s system offers the quickest transits, bulk barge shipments down the Mississippi River still appear to be cheaper, however, the APH system is still less expensive than the scenario involving the intermodal transport.
In terms of cost, assuming Memphis was still the origin and China was the final destination, and factoring in handling, transloading and all freight costs including ocean freight, the solution involving bulk barges was the cheapest, as illustrated in the chart below, which also was constructed using data from the report.
“Bulk barge is expected to remain the predominant mode of transportation for the export of grain and soybeans,” the report said. “On an overall scale of all grain and soybean exports and sales, the proposed APH system is unlikely to have a significant impact on local basis, yet will provide more optionality and flexibility accessing key global markets.
“However, working with agricultural interests, APH is having success in looking at alternatives to work directly with farmers/cooperatives to have transportation savings credited back to the farmers and improve their overall profitability,” the report said.
Lower Mississippi River Expansion. It appears dredging of the lower Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, La., to the Gulf of Mexico from 45 feet to 50 feet is on the horizon now that the USACE in August signed the final economic justification report needed for the project to launch.
This dredging project is crucial for commerce, considering that in addition to rising volumes being shipped on the river, the expanded Panama Canal, which opened in June 2016, also has a depth of 50 feet.
Sean Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, told BlueWater Reporting in December that the project will involve two phases in which 64 miles of the 254-mile portion from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico will need to be dredged. Phase 1 will involve deepening the first 30 miles from Plaquemines to Venice, while phase 2 will involve deepening the 36-mile portion from Belmont Crossing to Baton Rouge. The other portions of the river don’t need to be dredged because they are already at least 50 feet deep, Duffy explained.
“I expect the phase 1 dredging will take about one to two years to complete, depending on dredge availability, and phase 2 to take about the same amount of time,” Duffy said. “However, I do foresee a break between getting phase 1 done and the start of phase 2.” Overall, the entire dredging project is expected to take about six to seven years.
The project is still waiting on federal funding, which ideally will be included in the fiscal year 2020 budget, Duffy said, adding that there is potential that a supplemental bill from the federal government could appropriate the funding for the project.
The federal government will fund 75 percent — $118.1 million — of the entire project, while the state of Louisiana will fund the remaining 25 percent, $39.4 million.
In October, the Big River Coalition sent a letter to R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, requesting support to obtain federal funding for the project.
“The Lower Mississippi River deep-draft ports complex (Baton Rouge, South Louisiana, New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines) is an economic superhighway of international trade and the nation’s busiest port system,” the letter said. “The cargoes moved through these five ports account for nearly 70 percent of the nation’s grain exports and more than 20 percent of the nation’s coal and petroleum cargoes.
“The Big River Coalition estimates that there are $40 billion in new investments for proposed facilities already in various stages of development within the lower Mississippi River deep-draft ports complex,” the letter added. “Bulk grain vessels with a draft of 50 feet would carry about 12,000 metric tons of additional soybean cargo (440,920 bushels), representing an estimated value of $3.6 million per vessel.”
A report prepared by Informa Economics for the Soy Transportation Coalition, titled the “Impact on Crops and Product Export Flows of Dredging the Lower Mississippi River to 50 feet,” which was released in May, noted that when the Panama Canal was expanded, the cargo size that could travel though the waterway was increased from 56,700 metric tons to 97,000 metric tons on a post-Panamax, small capesize or neo-Panamax vessel.
“At 45 feet, Panamax vessels on the lower Mississippi River can load to 70,000 metric tons to take advantage of the expanded Panama Canal or go around the Cape of Good Hope, but typically load to 66,000 metric tons,” the report said. “If the project depth is 50 feet, a small capesize vessel can be loaded to 99,000 metric tons and a large capesize vessel can be loaded to 120,000 metric tons.
“It should be noted that several vessels were built expressly for the expanded Panama Canal and can be loaded to 84,000 metric tons in project depth of 45 feet on the lower Mississippi River,” the report added. “These ships are a small percentage of the fleet but are increasing the loading size. Vessels have been loaded with more than 90,000 metric tons of grain and soybeans on the lower Mississippi River for voyage to Europe, but this is rare.”
Additionally, the lower Mississippi River is home to four of the nation’s top 15 ports by annual tonnage, which include the Port of New Orleans, the Port of South Louisiana, the Port of Greater Baton Rouge and PPHTD, the Port of New Orleans said in August.
Some of these ports offer niche opportunities for the logistics industry, thus amplifying the need to dredge this portion of the river.
For instance, the Port of New Orleans, which is served by six of the seven Class I railroads, touts that it’s currently the only international container port in the state of Louisiana.
The chart below, which was constructed using data from BlueWater Reporting’s Port Dashboard tool, illustrates the 17 liner services that call the Port of New Orleans that also sail to regions outside the United States, which include 11 fully cellular container services and six multipurpose services.
Meanwhile, the Port of South Louisiana claims to be the largest tonnage port district in the Western Hemisphere, while Plaquemines Port, which is rapidly expanding its operations through various projects, has a ton of potential with the thousands of acres of land it has available for development.
© 2019 BlueWater Reporting (www.BlueWaterReporting.com) Used with permission