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Shipping on the Mississippi could be answer to supply chain issues, freight experts say

August 10, 2023   St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Pointing to lots of available funding opportunities, local port and shipping industry officials are eying a long list of projects along the St. Louis region’s riverways — aiming to attract investment and boost volumes of freight shipped on the Mississippi River.


In Jefferson County, for instance, public funding is fueling a push to pursue a more than 1,000-acre “mega site” that repurposes old industrial sites “that have fallen out of productive use,” said Jim McNichols, the executive director of the Jefferson County Port Authority.


“We’re very excited about the potential of a project like that,” he said during a virtual panel discussion Tuesday, held as part of “Freightweek” — a series of events organized by the St. Louis Regional Freightway.


“We hope to be moving dirt here in the not too distant future,” McNichols added.


There’s urgency to upgrade the facilities, including an old Doe Run Co. site, by the end of 2025 — in time to receive new, specialized vessels that will carry cargo in shipping containers to and from the Gulf of Mexico. The new liners are larger and faster than traditional river barges, but cannot get through the lock system that begins just north of St. Louis — meaning their loads will need to be dropped off somewhere in the region, before continuing onward.


While McNichols said much of the port authority’s targeted upgrades are “fueled by” federal stimulus dollars from the American Rescue Plan, he added that tens of millions of dollars in state funding could potentially factor into the equation, too.


The Jefferson County project is far from the only one in the region that is under consideration along the river.


Upstream, $28 million in grant funding is being divided by multiple ports seeking upgrades on either side of the river, said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, the executive director of America’s Central Port, along the banks of the Metro East.


“It’s about moving that product more efficiently,” he said.


Agricultural commodities dominate the area’s river freight — even prompting officials to market the region as the “Ag Coast.” That reputation is anchored by barges’ prodigious movement of grain, fertilizer, and a range of corn- and soy-derived products, including ethanol and biodiesel.


“The ‘Ag Coast’ makes us a huge freight magnet,” said Susan Taylor, the port director for the St. Louis Development Corporation, during a river tour about local shipping. She said that roads and railways are facing congestion, and at or near their capacity for freight, but that that’s not the case on the Mississippi.


“The river is under capacity. We can move way more than we’re moving now,” said Taylor.


Of course, plenty of non-agricultural products move up and down the river, as well. Wednesday’s tour, for instance, offered glimpses of road salt and cement arriving at river terminals, while just a bit farther up river, inputs like pig iron have long been destined for steel production in Granite City. Shipments of other commodities, like coal, have dropped off over time, industry officials said.


The barge and river shipping industry consistently touts its efficiency as a selling point — thanks to an ability to move massive loads of material and to use less energy than alternative forms of transportation. For instance, one barge can move as much of a given commodity as 22 railcars or 90 trucks, said Wilmsmeyer.


He said that some of the newly available federal funding stems from the heightened attention devoted to supply chain woes and bottlenecks, largely suffered as global ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic. He and others argue that shipping via rivers can help.


“That’s why so much money now is being sent to some of these inland ports,” said Wilmsmeyer. “All this funding ... has just been tremendous.”