May 25 2007

Boxed cargo key

Mobile Press Register

By SEAN REILLY

WASHINGTON -- With the Choctaw Point container terminal set to open next year on the Mobile River, shippers should take the opportunity to consider using Alabama's inland waterway system to move containerized cargo aboard barges, a new study concludes.

Not only could the river network provide a reliable alternative to truck and railroad traffic, but it would also reduce congestion and pollution, according to the executive summary of the report, prepared for the Coalition of Alabama Waterway Associations Inc., a nonprofit group that includes the Alabama State Port Authority and the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway Association, both based in Mobile.

"A lot of shippers aren't even aware what they can do with barges," Jerry Sailors, the coalition's secretary-treasurer and project manager for the study, said in a Wednesday interview.

Together with W.R. "Ron" Coles, a vice president with the Nashville consulting firm that prepared the report, Sailors was in the nation's capital to present the finished product to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa.

Shelby had earlier secured $1.5 million in federal money to pay both for the 266-page report made public Wednesday and a more detailed follow-up scheduled for release next year. Sailors also planned to meet with other federal officials and members of the state's congressional delegation before leaving Friday. 

"I was proud to support to support this study, which underscores our rivers' potential to expand economic growth throughout our state," Shelby said in a press release issued by the coalition.

Barges are typically used to move bulk cargo such as coal, grain and wood products, while containers -- essentially big metal boxes that can be easily loaded from ships on to rail cars or trucks -- are employed to transport higher-end goods. And although "container-on-barge" (or COB) shipping has been successfully used in Europe and the Pacific Northwest, it has had "limited success" elsewhere in the United States, the report says.

In Alabama, as in the nation as a whole, commercial river traffic has been stagnant or declining in recent years, according to tonnage figures compiled by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The state docks new container terminal at Choctaw Point is set to open in about a year. When it does, north-south truck traffic will increase, the report says. To take advantage of the opportunity, the barge industry needs to offer a credible alternative to long-haul trucking.

"The market place will sort out what is the right cargo," said Coles, vice president of Hanson Professional Services Inc. "We're trying to provide information."

While recommending an organized effort to promote container-on-barge, the report doesn't downplay the challenges to changing shippers' mind-set.

"To be successful in the COB business," it says, "shippers must have a strategic plan, a focused business operation, an identifiable market, an efficient marine operation, a seamless and unencumbered landside operation and connectivity to a deep water port."

In an interview earlier Wednesday, even Jimmy Lyons, the port authority's director, was inclined to see "container on barge" as more of an option for the future than the immediate present.

"The few times we have looked at it from an economic viability standpoint, it hasn't quite worked," Lyons said. Even with higher diesel and insurance costs, he said, trucking remains "very competitive."