River states explore shifting more oversized and overweight shipments via water

By Bill Holloway

According to the recently released M-55 Marine Highway Initiative Study, there is a significant opportunity for the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to carry more oversized and overweight (OSOW) freight, particularly manufactured goods and large containers of agricultural goods.  While waterborne freight volumes have increased by more than 50 percent over the last 30 years, foreign trade has driven this growth and domestic waterborne freight volumes have remained relatively flat. Although the US Maritime Administration defined a system of Marine Highways in 2007 that run roughly parallel to Interstate Highways, and has worked to increase freight on these corridors to reduce roadway congestion, volumes have not changed significantly. And while there has been a great deal of interest in shipping containers by barge rather than train or truck, as of 2011 these remain a very minor part of the domestic waterborne freight business, which is dominated by relatively low value bulk commodities like coal, petroleum products, chemicals, and gravel.

The M-55 Marine Highway Initiative Study focuses specifically on shippers near the Port of Peoria in Illinois and identifies roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) OSOW freight as the most promising market niche for new inland waterway services. The authors outline a series of recommendations to increase the usage of the M-55 corridor, which runs from Illinois to the Gulf Coast via the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The recommendations involve largely operational changes, including the use of leased barges and towboats for Ro/Ro OSOW loads now, and beginning development of the necessary infrastructure and technology for a container-on-barge service at a later date.  Ro/Ro OSOW cargo is the low-hanging fruit because much of this cargo must be broken into smaller parts for transportation by truck or rail, moving these goods on highways requires shippers to obtain permits from each state along the route, and OSOW regulations vary from state to state. While carriers of OSOW loads have long been required to obtain permits from states through which they pass, in recent years states have become more aware of the fiscal impacts of pavement damage and policing of OSOW carriers has become more stringent. In addition, because this cargo can be rolled on and off barges with a ramp, shipping via water does not require expensive investments in cranes and other cargo handling equipment.

In order to create a viable waterborne transportation system to get OSOW freight from Illinois to the Port of Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico the authors recommend service schedules of at least once per week in each direction. This would require two tow boats and three times the normal number of barges so that towboats arriving at the end of their trips can pick up fully loaded barges and begin their return trips without delay. The study recommends that service could be developed as a public-private partnership, possibly with public assistance for equipment or a revolving loan program to support operational funding.

The study finds that container shipment service on the river system is not yet feasible because of slower shipping times and higher transpacific shipping costs for containers from the Gulf of Mexico versus the West Coast ports. However with lower transpacific rates that may follow the Panama Canal’s expansion in 2015, and the development of faster self-propelled single-hulled barges that could reduce transit time to the Gulf, container service could become more viable.

Aside from the benefits to shippers and reduced congestion and highway maintenance costs for government, moving more freight on inland waterways could also yield significant environmental benefits, including reduced emissions. Inland waterway transportation systems are more developed in Europe; however, low trucking costs in the U.S. reduce the cost advantages of waterborne transport in this country.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.