ACBL Capt. Chris Primm describes working conditions on board towboats, what he loves about his job and what he sees as the challenges facing the industry during a breakout session September 6 at the OKI Conference on Freight in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

OKI Freight Conference Attracts National Audience

More than 200 people from 22 states attended the OKI Conference on Freight September 5-7 in Cincinnati, Ohio, making it one of the major national freight conferences of the year.

The conference was hosted by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments in partnership with presenting partners Ohio Department of Transportation and JobsOhio and program partners Ohio Association of Regional Councils, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.

Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project

The addition of a companion bridge across the Ohio River for the Brent Spence Bridge was the major topic for the September 6 keynote lunch, featuring Jim Gray and Jack Marchbanks, secretaries of transportation for Kentucky and Ohio, respectively.

Federal funding received from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will allow the construction of a second bridge that will carry interstates 71 and 75, while the existing bridge will serve local traffic. President Joe Biden visited the site in January and noted that the project is a national priority.

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On July 27, officials from Kentucky and Ohio announced that the $3.6 billion design-build contract for the bridge has been awarded as a joint venture between Chicago-based Walsh Construction and Westerville, Ohio-based Kokosing Construction. Ground is expected to be broken late this year, with substantial completion expected in 2029 or 2030.

Both Gray and Marchbanks said awareness of the bridge’s importance to transportation, both for truck and commuter traffic on the bridge and for the boat traffic below it, was made pivotal following a truck wreck and a resulting fire in November 2020 that shut down river traffic for days and traffic across the bridge for six weeks, requiring 160,000 vehicles a day to be diverted.

Gray said that during that closure he learned about the cost of delays to the inland waterways industry as boats were backing up and the U.S. Coast Guard stepped in.

“I was made very much aware of that economy during the fire,” he said.

He promised that he would not forget that during the design of the new bridge, vowing to keep river traffic moving during construction.

Marchbanks agreed, saying it was important to make sure plans for both construction and staging of materials were not disruptive to ports and other river-related businesses.

Comparing Waterborne Freight

A panel discussion titled “What Does Waterborne Freight Mean to You?” was the conference breakout session most pertaining to the inland waterways industry.

The session allowed attendees to compare and contrast river ports with their port counterparts on the Great Lakes and along the east coast.

Brian Wright, president and CEO of the Owensboro  Riverport Authority and a member of the Kentucky Freight Advisory Committee for Transportation, spoke about the more than 1,500 miles of navigable waterway in Kentucky, primarily on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The state has seven active and three developing public riverports and more than 90 private ports, Wright said. Top inland cargoes by weight include coal, lignite and coal coke at 41.4 million tons annually; sand, gravel, shells, clay, salt and slag at 35.8 million tons annually; petroleum products at 8.7 million tons annually. Top products by value are chemicals used in consumer products at $2.6 billion; gasoline at $2 billion; and coal at $1.8 billion.

Wright contrasted river transportation with coastal ports, which do major container business, and those in the Great Lakes, where container business has been growing at certain ports. While container-on-barge has been spoken about frequently and has had some success in St. Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it is not yet present at most river ports, he said. He cited major reasons as the ability to turn containers in full quantities back to their arrival points, the lengthier time to transport containers and extended “dwell times” on land.

However, “It’s something the Maritime Administration is still eagerly vested in via the Marine Highways grant program,” Wright said.

River ports do have occasional business transactions with other ports, he said. Examples he gave included the Owensboro Riverport Authority working with the Port of Toledo on the transportation of metal as well as shipping automotive frames for the Jeep Gladiator by rail to Cleveland, Ohio.

Joe Cappel, vice president of business development for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority and chair of the Ohio Freight Advisory Committee, said that, in contrast, 400 to 700 containers can fit on one ship in the Great Lakes. The ports of Cleveland and Duluth are upgrading facilities to pursue the container trade, he said. In addition to its shipyard, the Toledo port also includes two airports and Greyhound bus and Amtrak train stations.

There are 67 port authorities in the state of Ohio, he said, with the Port of Toledo created to coincide with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, allowing access to the Great Lakes via a binational system involving both the United States and Canada.

Like locks and dams on the river system, he said that infrastructure along the Great Lakes is generally aged, with most of it built in the 1950s or 1960s. A major effort is the building of a second large chamber at the Soo Locks near Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.The Toledo port is also upgrading its infrastructure, including aggressively pursuing grant opportunities, Cappel said. This has led to roughly $18 million in investments within the past four years and a capital improvement plan anticipating $22 million in investments planned over the next two years.

Chris Gullickson, director of development and transportation policy for the Port of Virginia, spoke about international freight, with more freight now coming to the United States from India via the Suez Canal. The port has six terminals through the Virginia Port Authority, with four ocean ports, a port on the James River that includes short-sea shipping using barged cargo and a rail port. Port projects involve major use of advanced technology including automation in the movement of shipping containers, he said.

The port also operates a breakbulk terminal, the Newport News Marine Terminal. Incoming cargoes include about 10 percent of all Nissan vehicles being sold in the United States, he said.

He also noted a $650 million investment currently underway at the Norfolk International Terminals with the first phase to be complete by 2025 and the second by 2027. Following the upgrades that terminals will have a capacity to ship 5.8 million twenty-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) annually.

Comparing Modes

Capt. Chris Primm with American Commercial Barge Line was among the panelists for a session titled “A Conversation With the People Who Move Our Freight.”

He spoke about schedules on board his boat, the 9,210-hp. triple-screw Mv. Jacky O’Neal. The boat has a regular crew of nine or 10 that can expand up to 13, if needed. The crew works 28 days on and 28 off, working two six-hour shifts daily interspersed with six-hour periods off-watch. He works from 6 a.m. to noon and 6 p.m. to midnight with the pilot working the opposite schedule, he explained to the audience.

The boat pushes up to 40 barges at one time, with a combined size of more than 240,000 square feet, larger than five football fields.

“Pretty much anything that’s bulk, we move,” he said, giving examples ranging from grain to steel products, chemicals and coal.

He noted that a tow can move 14.4 million ton-miles per day, so if fuel costs $3 a gallon, it only costs 1/1,000 of a penny a day per ton-mile to move that freight, an efficiency railroads and trucks can’t match. It would take 577 train cars or 2,803 large tractor-trailer rigs to move the same amount of cargo as one 40-barge tow, he said.

A challenge he noted was that pleasure boaters don’t understand the size of a tow and time it takes to stop it and the dangers of zipping across the river channel in front of one, he said.

Additionally, he said, government agencies do not always understand the cost of delays, with tows having an operating cost of around $600 to $1,000 per hour. There also continue to be inconsistencies between Coast Guard districts and among various auditors, he said, and there is an increasing amount of paperwork and software for operators to learn.

Both he and the panelists representing the rail and trucking industries all mentioned the difficulties attracting new people to the industries, as well.

Caption for photo: ACBL Capt. Chris Primm describes working conditions on board towboats, what he loves about his job and what he sees as the challenges facing the industry during a breakout session September 6 at the OKI Conference on Freight in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)