OKI Seeks Industry Help For New Freight Plan

The regional metropolitan planning agency for the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, and northern Kentucky area is looking for information from the river industry to complete its new regional freight plan.

The plan provides a fresh examination of multimodal freight transportation since the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) adopted its first freight plan more than a decade ago in 2011. It looks at the safety, mobility/reliability, infrastructure condition, environmental sustainability and economic competitiveness of the five freight modes of transportation in the organization’s service area, which includes six counties touching the Ohio and Licking rivers.

“The main thing that comes out of any transportation plan we do are the recommendations,” said Robyn Bancroft, OKI strategic initiatives manager. “We work with data and community partners to identify where the problems and needs are and what the improvement solutions should be to ensure the safe and efficient movement of goods.”

The plan is targeted for presentation to the OKI board for approval in June, but Bancroft is seeking additional information to complete it.

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The plan attempts to quantify how commercial river navigation, truck traffic, air cargo, rail and pipeline transport in the area are performing currently in the identified fields as well as projecting their futures out to 2050.

“What we want to identify is where the needs and opportunities are, create a list of recommendations, and secure funding with the help of our partners,” she said.

Bancroft presented some of her findings so far to a meeting of the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA) and also asked for input. Her presentation was then distributed through the CORBA e-newsletter.

Safe And Environmentally Friendly

Bancroft began her report by noting that river transportation remains the safest form of transportation in the area.

“Of the five freight modes, river is undeniably the safest option in the OKI region for moving freight,” she wrote in her draft report on existing river conditions. “Between 2010 and 2020, no freight-related incidences [in the OKI region] met the Coast Guard’s threshold as a significant marine event. The threshold until April 18, 2018, was $100,000 in property damage and $200,000 after this date to account for inflation. In addition, there have been no navigation-related oil or chemical spills tied to a river freight navigation incident.”

Additionally, she said, barge transportation remains the most environmentally friendly mode, with no reported hazardous materials spills in the area. However, she said, there is a lack of air quality information available for maritime operations, and OKI would like more data from anyone tracking it.

Another question for industry that she posed is, “Do you have any information related to the current or future use of cleaner fuels or other environmental sustainability maritime freight efforts?”

Room To Expand

Unlike the other modes, there is room to expand capacity on the river system.

The region includes 87.3 miles along the Ohio River and seven commercially navigable miles on the Licking River. As of January 2022, there were 58 commercial river terminals in this region, operated by 42 companies. Nine companies had more than one terminal location, and nearly half of the companies in the area are CORBA members.

Of the 104 docks in the region, more than half are in Hamilton County, Ohio, with the majority located on the right descending banks of the Ohio and Licking rivers. As of January 2022, 7 percent of the docks (14 total) were classified as inactive.

Half of the docks are equipped with cranes and/or conveyors to transport bulk freight commodities, Bancroft said. Eighteen percent are equipped to move liquid products. Twenty-one percent have tanks, and 30 percent offer covered storage. Thirty-seven percent of docks store shipments on paved or gravel laydown areas that are open to the elements.

While all the docks have roadway connections, 32 percent have access to rail. Twelve docks, all located in Hamilton County along the West River Road corridor, have complete multi-modal access to roads, rail and pipeline.

There are 35 barge fleeting areas in the region, and all are located on the Ohio River. More than half of these are located in Hamilton County.

Meldahl and Markland dams are both within the region, although Bancroft noted that the system is highly reliant on locks and dams up and down the river throughout the system. Those locks and dams also help to protect river transportation from flooding and drought, ensuring the reliability of regional river transport, she said.

Total Tonnage Down

One concern OKI has is that the total freight tonnage being transported on the river is decreasing overall, as shown by data from the Corps of Engineers.

“Declining tonnage has been driven partially by the closure of coal-fired power plants and a subsequent decrease in coal demand, a phenomenon shared with other ports across the nation,” Bancroft said.

Using data from the Corps of Engineers, OKI also conducted an analysis to measure the number of towing vessels using the Markland pool annually.

“Findings show that the Ohio River is experiencing a decline in utilization in recent years,” Bancroft said. “As a greater number of tugs have used the river in the past, the river’s available capacity is not being used to its greatest potential. This finding is noteworthy as other freight modes are more constrained and/or operating beyond their physical and operational capacities, providing an opportunity to potentially shift some freight off trucks, trains, or pipeline and onto barges.”

Given the decline in coal transportation, Bancroft wants to know from industry members what commodity changes they foresee for the region’s future.

So far, she said, company representatives have reported to her that facilities are working to diversify the products they handle, moving a variety of products, from steel coils to bagged bulk goods.

Additionally, she said, chemicals such as caustic sodas, hydrochloric acid and chlorine used in manufacturing processes are also moving on the waterways. Forecasts for the region show a more than 200 percent increase in basic chemicals on the river between 2020 and 2050, she said.

Because these goods are also more highly valued than coal, while river freight tonnage overall will continue going down, the value of products being carried on the region’s river between 2020 and 2025 is expected to increase, she said.

“The big question mark is containers-on-barge,” Bancroft added in discussing her findings. “That, I think, is where everyone sees a great potential, but you’ve got to have the infrastructure and the machinery, as well as sufficient customer volume.”

She said the time may be right for industries to consider barging products that they are currently moving by other modes.

“The river offers us such a great opportunity,” she said. “It’s just a matter of timing.”

While most industries traditionally rely on just-in-time shipping, that could be changing; after the COVID-19 pandemic, people are now looking more closely at how to maintain their supply chains, she said.

“I really think COVID knocked some people back on their heels a little,” Bancroft said. “The ability to have a flexible and resilient supply chain has never been more important. Consideration of river transport should be on everyone’s radar.”

Infrastructure Concerns

The only chokepoints Bancroft noted in the system are at the Markland Locks and Dam, Ohio River Mile 531.5, and the Meldahl Locks and Dam at Ohio River Mile 436.0. Both dams were built in the 1960s.

For the past decade, the average processing time for both the Markland and Meldahl locks has been just under an hour. Between 2009 and 2019, Markland’s processing time has improved by one to two minutes, Bancroft said. Meldahl’s time has increased from about 51 minutes to an hour. The average processing time is the calculated average time spent traversing the lock from the first cut’s start of lockage time to the last cut’s end of lockage time.

Overall delays at Markland have increased from 45 percent of all vessels in 2009 to 49 percent in 2019, she said. At Meldahl the delay increased from 33 percent of all vessels to 38 percent in the same time period. Translating this information into a measurement of total delay time results in a 2019 average delay to tows of more than 38 minutes at Meldahl and nearly 70 minutes at Markland. Average delay is the time in minutes spent in queue awaiting lockage or the difference between the first start of lock and arrival time.

Given this data, Bancroft posed the question to industry: “Why is lock delay on the rise while the amount of tonnage carried on the river is decreasing?”

Part of the reason could be the age of the system, which requires more downtime for repairs, she said, but she wanted information to confirm that or to know if any other factors are at play.

Assessing Future Needs

In looking at the future of the river industry in the OKI region, Bancroft said she is already gathering some thoughts.

One need that stood out is the need for additional laydown areas and storage, she said.

Some companies may have needs to invest in new equipment, such as cranes with a longer reach or heavier lift, she said.

Additionally, continued dredging is necessary to maintain river channels and ensure navigability, she said.

Bancroft asked that those who may have information on any of the questions posed or who may want to contribute other information to contact her by email at