Mobile-Mississippi barge service proposed
Of the eight projects that the U.S. Maritime Administration said on Wednesday would be eligible to compete for $7 million in marine highway grants was a plan to start a new container-on-barge service between the Alabama's Port of Mobile and Port Itawamba in Fulton, Miss.
While you may never heard of Port Itawamba — the name means 'bench chief,' a name bestowed on Levi Colbert who became a leader in the Chickasaw Nation during the 18th century — you only need a short conversation with Port Director Greg Deakle to understand why such a service may be attractive.
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Northeast Mississippi, he explained, is a center of the furniture industry, generating about 220,000 TEUs worth of containers, most of which are shipped from the Far East to West Coast ports and then moved by rail to Memphis, Tenn., and finally drayed to factories or warehouses in the region.
The port believes it can save shippers from 10 to 20 percent in transportation costs if they choose to move their products via all-water service to Mobile and then barge boxes up the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway to either Port Itawamba, or other ports in northern Mississippi along the waterway.
Another possible customer for the service is Toyota, which is expected to start making Corollas next year at a new assembly factory in Blue Springs, Miss., about 24 miles from Port Itawamba. The decision to open the assembly in Blue Springs follows Toyota’s decision to end its New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. joint venture with General Motors in Fremont, Calif.
'We saw an opportunity to both promote an all-water route as well as save shippers some money and give them some alternatives. We've worked very closely with the Mobile Container Terminal, Alabama State Ports Authority, and the Coalition for Alabama Waterways,' said Deakle, who is also executive director of the Itawamba County Development Council.
Containers heading to furniture companies in North Mississippi are generally filled with knockdown furniture, such as ready-to-assemble bookshelves, components that are made into finished furniture in the United States, and fabric, including the increasingly popular microfiber fabric used on many upholstered chairs and sofas.
Thus these containers are filled with dense, heavy cargo, and one attraction to the barge service is that shippers would be able to reduce the total number of containers they need to move from the Far East by loading them heavily with cargo. For example, a container could be loaded to 55,000 pounds of cargo from the Far East and move all the way to Itawamba, be lightened to 40,000 pounds at the port for the short dray to a local furniture factory so it could comply with truck weight limits. Excess cargo from several containers could also be combined into a spare empty.
Deakle said the proposed barge service has been under development for two years and modified over time. For example, after finding that some shippers might be closer to the Mississippi ports of Yellow Creek, Amory, Aberdeen or Columbus, Itawamba joined them to form a coalition called Growports which is also supporting the initiative.
'Everything is chicken-and-egg ' no one wants to sign onto a service that doesn't exist yet and you can't start the service unless someone is willing to sign on,' Deakle said. A MarAd grant could be 'what cracks the eggs and lets us start cooking.'
He said the service could be up and running in a few months. The MarAd program requires shippers to supply a 20 percent matching contribution, and Deakle said he had originally asked for about $1.7 million to offset the cost of a barge and starting a pilot program, which he would like to see run at least three years.
While bigger tows could move through the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, Itawamba has been looking at a service that would convert three standard hopper barges into container carriers, each capable of carrying 36 40-foot boxes.
By pushing just three barges at a time, the towboat and barges would all be able to move through locks at the same time and give a transit time of about three and a half days to Itawamba and about 12 hours more or less to other ports in the region. ' Chris Dupin