Ohio Conference Session Examines How To Minimize River Freight Vulnerabilities

Speakers at the Ohio Conference on Freight’s session titled “Economic Equity and River Freight Vulnerabilities” sought to find ways to help the river industry grow into the future.

The session was part of the two-day virtual conference May 20-21. It was hosted by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) and included aspects of maritime, rail and trucking industries as well as logistics and supply chain issues that unite them.

Session moderator Sam Wallace noted that it is especially important to preserve and protect access to the inland waterways system.

The first speaker, Sara Walfoort, is manager of freight planning for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

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She spoke about the river system’s history and characteristics, including its locks and dams.

“This is the river system that made America, and it continues to do so,” she said. “The story of our rivers is really the story of our locks.”

It is very important not only for locks to be well maintained but also that they have operational schedules that allow regular use without a wait, which can help to drive economic development, she said.

She noted that many of these locks are in rural areas, which often don’t get as much funding as more populated areas but provide good jobs.

Much of her speech focused on the Levels of Service, a policy by which the Corps of Engineers determines lock operation schedules on lesser used rivers.

In July 2012, the Corps issued OPORD 2012-63, an official order entitled “IMTS Process Improvement, Standard Levels of Service,” commonly called the “levels of service” regulation. It limited lock operating schedules on rivers that historically had fewer tons of cargo passing through them. Rivers were designated as high-, moderate- or low-use, and individual lock operations varied by their level of use. Fifteen of the nation’s 27 rivers comprising the Inland Marine Transportation System (IMTS) were ultimately classified as low-use. Another four were classified as moderate-use.

The regulation led to more cuts in lock operations scheduling in subsequent years, which those in opposition to the measure say caused detrimental effects including: crippling the possibility of commercial growth along the low-use waterways; making the river industry cautious about the locks’ continued operation; and in some cases threatening the potential future economy of major U.S. metropolitan areas historically served by commerce along these rivers.

By implementing the Levels of Service policy, the Corps is looking to invest into the areas most used, Woolfort said.

“It’s a very pragmatic way to look at things when you’re looking at your own funding stream,” she said of the policy. “The question is, ‘Does it really strengthen the river system as a whole?’”

She argued that it does not.

When locks on lesser used rivers are closed, it is like a toll booth on a tolled highway being closed for certain hours, she said. Eventually, people get tired of waiting for them to open and stop traveling that way.

An example of one area affected has been in southwest Pennsylvania, where the budget to operate locks on the Allegheny River was slashed by 50 percent in 2012 because of the Levels of Service policy. Major maintenance was eliminated, along with 18 positions.

As shippers turn to other modes of transport, it affects all those areas downstream that don’t have the benefit of those cargoes, she said.

On the Allegheny, the Corps is considering reducing service from Lock 6 down to Lock 5 instead.

Additionally, she said, of decisions to close certain locks at certain times, “My assertion is we’re making it on a case-by-case basis instead of a systemwide basis, and I’d like to see some modifications to that.”

Locks closed or with reduced schedules make it difficult to support and promote economic development, Woolfort said. Businesses that rely on the river are hesitant to move in when they’re not sure if a lock’s operation schedule may be reduced, potentially costing them money.

“Is this really the way to promote business along our river?” Woolfort asked.

Additionally, she said, the policy takes into account how far goods are traveling on the river. That disadvantages companies that are carrying products only 100 miles or so because those users, such as steel mills, built on top of the natural resources available.

“We’re continuing to look at this,” Woolfort said. “We’re continuing to look at how to keep our rivers strong.”

Woolfort also showed information from the Pittsburgh Area Lock Closure Externality Study completed by Larry Bray, Ph.D. It looked at a hypothetical situation in which one of three locks on the Ohio River in Pennsylvania is out of service for 50 days or 180 days.

“Since each barge is the equivalent of about 70 trucks, if 30 million tons of products are being moved, that comes to about 600,000 trucks that are not currently on our roads. If we add that number of trucks, we obviously have some pretty serious impacts.”

Much of that additional traffic would be in downtown Pittsburgh, Woolfort said, adding that chokepoints would develop at bridges and tunnels.

“The vulnerability of the older, smaller river segments cannot be ignored if the system is to remain strong,” she said.

She suggested solutions to the current situation could involve new sources of funding, perhaps from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Additionally, she said, funding may be possible in areas identified as federal Opportunity Zones. 

The other speaker was Robyn Bancroft, strategic initiatives manager for the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Council of Regional Governments (OKI).

She spoke about the importance of attracting new cargoes to the river, especially as the amount of coal transported continues its projected decrease.

A 2017 study in the Cincinnati area she pointed to showed that 15.2 percent of total freight tonnage moved by water.

“For the past decade, we’ve been talking about how our Ohio River freight capacity is not being utilized,” she said, adding that it’s capable of an increase by 10 or even 20 percent. 

“It’s really a missed opportunity that we’re trying to address,” she said.

One problem is that the river is “out of sight, out of mind” for many potential customers, Bancroft said.

Looking at waterborne freight transportation forecasts developed for a Kentucky freight study, she said, “We do not see this getting better unless we do something dramatically different.”

Kentucky’s study is looking at potential growth opportunities for terminal operators to expand so that projected new transportation business doesn’t all move to trucks.

Iron, steel, grain, waste and scrap metal, industrial chemicals and petroleum products all could hold potential for diverted movement to barges in the area serviced by OKI, she said, but it will be important to get the word out that in many cases moving products by barge is safer, cheaper and better for the environment.

In the end, she said, port and terminal operators need to ask themselves some important questions to help identify market opportunities. They include: “What investments or changes will you need to make to attract and serve the key commodity growth volumes? Looking at the top commodity growth opportunities, what would be your strategy to attract top commodities from your market area? What key projects and infrastructure investments will the OKI region require to capture those volumes?”

It will also be important to work together with those both upriver and downriver and supporting each other, she said.

Bancroft added, “For good reason, we’re still very roadway focused in freight, but we’ve got to start expanding our opportunities for river investments.”