“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” ……Mark Twain
When the $5.2 billion expansion of the Panama Canal was completed in 2016, its capacity was doubled, making it possible for more ships, as well as larger ships to transit the canal and call at Gulf and Eastern ports. The volume of traffic has increased at most of these, as they expanded channels and installed larger cranes to handle the larger container ships.
In the Midsouth and Midwest, firms have been particularly interested in what happened at the Port of New Orleans. With a depth of 200 feet, this port is located on the deepest section of the Mississippi River, and has no problems with the larger ships. Port officials predicted that container traffic would increase by about 7% initially. Little did they know.
In 2019, the Port of New Orleans loaded more containers than at any time in its history. The 649,000 TEUs (Twenty Foot Equivalents) handled were up 10% over 2018. For six consecutive years, the port has handled over a half million TEUs. But where do they go from there?
When the expansion was first announced, caught up in the excitement and misinformation, several city economic development officials predicted that with the enlarged canal, larger ships could move right up the river and unload. Obviously, that is not going to happen. The only way for a container to traverse the length, or even a partial length of the river beyond Baton Rouge is by barge. While river cities such as Vicksburg, Memphis, and St Louis have deep harbors, the Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining only a nine-foot depth between Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. Also, there are 170 bridges across the Mississippi, some of which are so low that towboats have telescoping pilot houses that are lowered when moving under them.
While there is some container-on-barge service on the river, the majority of the containers unloaded at New Orleans move out by rail. Intermodal volume from the port in 2019, was up 20 plus %, moving over the KCS and CN to key U.S. markets. Still, there is a dream that a way can be found to move containers up the river efficiently and economically, offering a low-cost alternative to intermodal and truck.
There have been several attempts to develop a viable, expanded service on the river, but so far, none have moved from the drawing board. There is a recently announced plan that may experience the same fate, although it shows more promise than those that have gone before. Recently, American Patriot Holdings and the Plaquemines Port Harbor District have announced a letter of intent to embark on a new venture. Under the agreement, Plaquemines Port Harbor, 20 miles down the river from New Orleans, would build a 1000-acre container terminal that could handle ships holding up to 20,000 containers. The most interesting part of the plan however, involves the new ships that would be provided by American Patriot to move containers up the river. These vessels would be 595-625 feet long, 100-134 feet wide, and would hold 2375 containers. The loaded height above water would be 48 feet at a 9-foot draft, enabling them to slip under the low bridges. They would be powered by LNG and move at 13 miles per hour against a 5 mile per hour current.
The current plan is for the first ship to be launched in 2023.
Certainly, river transport has its advantages. It is cheap, environmentally friendly, and operated over government-maintained rivers. Currently, most river traffic consists of bulk cargos, i.e. sand, gravel, chemicals, etc. The proposed service could open the river to more consumer goods. While the idea is intriguing, with today’s emphasis on faster service, 13 mph transportation does not seem too practical for consumer goods. However, if the cost of carrying additional inventory is more than offset by the price of the transport, it could work.
The other potential problem I see is the depth of the river. With ship drafts of 9-10 feet, it would appear that a considerable of dredging would be required. My assumption (and hope) is that I am not the first person to think of that.