BY FRANK MCCORMACK
December 4, 2017
Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, was in New Orleans November 30 to tour the Port of New Orleans’ Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal. The visit offered Buzby a glimpse of the terminus of the container-on-barge service that operates on the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tenn., Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans.
Seacor AMH launched the container-on-barge shuttle service in the spring of 2016. The service draws empty containers from Memphis and moves them to Baton Rouge, where they are loaded with plastic resins. Those loaded containers are then moved to the Port of New Orleans’ Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal for export.
Since the launch of the service, Seacor AMH has moved close to 30,000 TEUs (twenty-foot-equivalent units) between the three cities. The busiest week for the service came this past August, when Seacor AMH moved more than 500 TEUs-worth of loaded containers from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
Surveying the stacks of containers at the Napoleon Avenue Terminal, Buzby praised the container-on-barge service for its innovation and effectiveness.
“It’s a great use of a natural resource—the river—and an already-established mode of transportation and stitching together needs in a couple different locations,” Buzby said.
Buzby pointed to the glut of idle containers in Memphis and how the Seacor AMH container-on-barge service shifts those extras to where they are needed—Baton Rouge—all without adding trucks to the roadways.
“The hundreds of containers that don’t have to travel by road every week can come down a perfectly good highway more economically,” Buzby said, referencing the Mississippi River’s designation as a marine highway. “The ability to move by water is so much cheaper than by land, so it’s a great use of a resource.”
CMA CGM, the export partner for the service, then takes the containers overseas as part of the company’s weekly container service from the Port of New Orleans to Asia, Northern Europe and South America. Petrochemical companies have committed to more than $81 billion-worth of projects along the Lower Mississippi River ahead of what’s believed to be a coming surge in demand for plastic resins over the next few years. According to the Port of New Orleans, the Gulf region could see an increase of 400,000 TEUs of plastic resin exports between now and 2020. With that expected growth in demand for resins, ocean carriers besides CMA CGM are expressing interest in the container-on-barge service.
“We are pleased to see that the container-on-barge service continues to grow, and it offers our shippers another option for inland transportation,” Port of New Orleans President and CEO Brandy Christian said. “We look forward to larger numbers as the projected growth in resins is realized.”
Richard Teubner, vice president of Seam AMH, said the Baton Rouge to New Orleans service is already expanding to meet demand. In January, Seacor AMH will begin a second voyage from Baton Rouge to coincide with container ships departing for South America early in the week. Teubner said resin producers in Baton Rouge have actually been pushing for the second voyage.
“The whole thing is timeliness,” Teubner said, later adding, “We’re really responding to the industry more than anything.”
The Port of Greater Baton Rouge is also doing its part to lay the foundation for expanding the container-on-barge service.
“In trying to support Seacor’s effort in Baton Rouge, we’ve got plans underway to expand our yard with more concrete, and thanks to MarAd, some new equipment to increase the efficiency of those moves,” said Jay Hardman, executive director of the Port of Baton Rouge.
The Port of Baton Rouge received a $1.75 million grant from MarAd last December for the purchase of specialized container loading equipment in order to more quickly move containers to and from barges.
Seacor AMH and the ports involved in the container-on-barge service also have their eyes on future expansion, which could reach the St. Louis, Mo., area. In February, the board of commissioners of the Port of New Orleans signed a memorandum of understanding with the St. Louis Regional Freightway to foster container-on-barge movements between the two areas. Seacor’s Inland River Services group includes SCF Louis & Clark Terminals in the St. Louis area.
Buzby said, while container-on-barge movements have typically been feeder services like the one between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the model, if effectively applied throughout the country, promises to pay huge dividends in terms of efficiently moving cargoes by water and reducing congestion on roadways.
“You make the whole logistics chain so much more efficient,” Buzby said. “Any time you cut out a movement, you’ve just made the logistics chain run smoother. That’s the beauty of this. Plus it uses a very underutilized asset—that’s our waterways.”
Buzby said he anticipates waterway infrastructure projects to play a major role in the Trump administration’s much-anticipated infrastructure plan, which could total up to $2 trillion in public and private funding over a 10-year period. Although some project priority lists have surfaced in the past months, Buzby declined to name either specific projects he hopes to see funded in an infrastructure plan or what the plan itself will look like.
“We have the grand plan, but we don’t have the details,” he said.
Specifics notwithstanding, Buzby said the importance of waterborne commerce cannot be overstated.
“Virtually everything people see and touch that wasn’t manufactured in the United States came here by ship, typically through a gateway port like New Orleans,” Buzby said.