February 18, 2020: The Telegraph (full link below)
The latest data U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data shows St. Louis regional ports moved from the third position into the second position for inland port total tonnage in the 2018 rankings.
The port system handled 37.4 million tons of commodities over the course of 2018, a 13.2 percent increase over the prior the year. Just 1.1 million tons separated it from the top position — the Port of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky — despite a drop in its total tonnage for the year.
The St. Louis region which continues to rank as the most efficient inland port district in the nation in terms of tons moved per river mile, according to the St. Louis Regional Freightway.
During 2018, the St. Louis region’s barge industry handled more than 534,000 tons per mile along the 70 miles that make up the port system. The system has the second highest concentration of port facilities per mile of all inland ports, contributing to growing awareness of a 15-mile stretch of the Mississippi River through southwestern Illinois and eastern Missouri at St. Louis known as the “Ag Coast of America.”
“For you as a region to come up to No. 2 for total tonnage is a real accomplishment,” said Ken Eriksen, senior vice president with IHS Markit, a world leader in critical information, analytics and solutions for the major industries and markets that drive economies worldwide. “But it’s not surprising as St. Louis has been gaining for a while.”
Eriksen said several things contributed to the positive trends for the St. Louis region’s port system, among them being just one set of locks between St. Louis and Asia: the Panama Canal.
He said the deeper draughts allow for barges to be loaded heavy. Rail access in the region from both sides of Mississippi River includes six Class I railroads. Corn can come to the river all the way from Minneapolis.
Eriksen said there is growing demand from Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand to source from the Mississippi River system, which is recognized for better soybeans with higher protein and better oil quality.
“The St. Louis region has become a vital spot on the map from the grain perspective,” Eriksen said.
Crude oil was also up significantly over 2017 and iron ore more than doubled, likely tied to the resumption of operations at U.S. Steel’s facility in Granite City.
SCF Marine Inc. — which provides integrated logistics and barge transportation services on the U.S. Inland Waterways as well as in South America and has operations in the St. Louis Port District — is seeing firsthand the impact of the growing volumes of commodities moving through the region.
“The increased demand for transload capacity resulted in increased operational hours, demand for barges and labor needs,” said Tim Power, president of SCF Marine Inc. “Because St. Louis is an important intersection point for all Class I railroads, multiple interstate highways and the river transportation system, we are able to pull grain from surplus regions in the west and north, funneling grain to the river system via our ports.”
The region’s commitment to investing in its freight network is key to accommodating continued growth in tonnage.
“We know when we do not invest in infrastructure, nothing moves,” said Eriksen. “When we do, it creates the opportunity for optionality.
“Infrastructure is everything. It supports rolling and floating assets alike,” he said. “We see more coming into the St. Louis area to take full advantage of the optionality here and get the most favorable price.”
Mary Lamie, executive vice president of Multi Modal Enterprises at Bi-State Development and head of the St. Louis Regional Freightway, said more than $1 billion in infrastructure projects are moving forward across the region.
“Investment in infrastructure is key to supporting the barge industry and critical for maintaining global competitiveness, so it’s very encouraging to see public and private funding advancing some of the region’s highest priority projects,” said Lamie. “On top of that, continuing investments in the ports and river terminals along the Ag Coast of America have created a highly competitive shipper and carrier market featuring greater efficiencies and lower costs.”
Both Eriksen and Power said they believe any improved trade relations with China would benefit the St. Louis region.
“The St. Louis to New Orleans barge route is one of the most efficient logistics export streams in the U.S., and there typically is an abundance of corn in the region,” Power said. “St. Louis is directly tied to U.S. export markets, including China, so any increase in trade volumes would improve operational conditions.”
Planned closures on the Illinois River waterway system later this year are expected to impact commodity flows for 2020. But given the strength and flexibility of the St. Louis region’s port system and surrounding freight network, there is potential for that impact to be positive.
“As with any closure, flows will adjust as needed,” said Power. “Given the close proximity to the lower Illinois River, increased volume through the St. Louis region’s port system is likely.
“With the length of the projected closure, a large volume of products will need to be rerouted or stored until the river re-opens,” he said.