Ports & Terminals

Huntington Tri-State Tops Inland Ports In New Ranking

The Port of Huntington Tri-State is the nation’s busiest inland port by freight volume, according to a recently released freight analysis for 2019.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center released data late last year showing the port has overtaken the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky in total volume moved.

Both ports are statistical ports with boundaries that have changed in recent years. The Port of Huntington Tri-State was the first port in the nation to adopt a statistical boundary definition, doing so in 2000. While the previous Port of Huntington encompassed only 14 miles of the Ohio River in the area surrounding the city, the Port of Huntington Tri-State achieved approval from the Corps of Engineers to broaden its footprint. It now includes 100 miles of the Ohio River, nine miles of the Big Sandy River and 90 miles of the Kanawha River in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.

The Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky was designated as a statistical port in 2015 and includes 226.5 miles of the Ohio and Licking rivers in Ohio and Kentucky. It formed when the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and the Northern Kentucky Port Authority joined forces.

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Since its formation, the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky had overtaken Huntington as the leader in annual freight volume. That was reversed with the 2019 data the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center released November 3. The Port of Huntington Tri-State moved 36.8 million short tons of freight in 2019, while the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky moved 36.6 million short tons. The data is designed to capture all of the tons of freight that originate or are received within those ports as reported from operators.

“They’re only about 200,000 tons apart,” said Autumn Pittman, chief of data management for the Planning Center of Expertise For Inland Navigation, based out of the Huntington (W.Va.) Engineer District. “They’re really right there together.”

In comparing the data against 2018 figures, Huntington was up about 7 percent in volume, and Cincinnati was down about 5 percent.

“After reviewing this with the economist, we feel that much of the downward trend we are seeing in Cincinnati and the upward trend we are seeing in Huntington has to do with coal, and in the bigger picture, due to shifts in the power industry,” Pittman said.

She noted that there have been some power plant closures within the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s boundaries and added that the price of coal has also allowed some opportunities for those plants still in operation to stockpile the resource.

The Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center does not specifically differentiate between inland and coastal ports, so it calculates Huntington as 17th overall in the nation and Cincinnati as 18th, although the top 16 ports listed are all coastal. Of the top 50 ports listed, only five are inland. The other three are: St. Louis, third largest inland port, 31.3 million short tons (21st overall among all coastal and inland ports); Pittsburgh, fourth with 21.8 million short tons (30th overall); and the Mid-America Port Commission, 12 million short tons (44th overall).

Bill Barr, executive director of the Huntington District Waterways Association, said the elevation to top inland port by volume is a great designation for the Port of Huntington-Tri-State.

“It points out that we are a viable inland port where shippers can take advantage of the most environmentally friendly, safest and most efficient form of bulk transportation offered,” he said.

Eric Thomas, president of the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA), congratulated the Port of Huntington Tri-State for its achievement, while also noting that coal volume decreases should be a concern to all of those in the industry.

“For us here locally, the message is we have to  keep looking for ways to drive tonnage back to the inland waterways,” he told members of CORBA’s maritime committee as part of a January 6 meeting where he reported the figures.

Thomas also stressed the importance of programs like the U.S. Maritime Administration’s (MarAd) Marine Highway Program. Chad Dorsey, director of MarAd’s Inland Waterways Gateway Office, told CORBA’s maritime committee he hopes to receive a notice of funding opportunity in April or May projected to be about $11 million for potential grants for Marine Highway-designated projects, of which there are currently 44.

“We look for projects that really get trucks off the road or off the rails as we look for opportunities to use the inland waterways more to move freight,” he said of the program.

The program is unique as it is one of few programs available to private industries looking to develop ways to move freight via the river system. Dorsey also spoke briefly about other grant programs, including the Small Shipyard Grant Program and the Port Infrastructure Development Program.