Analyst Insight: The supply chain disruptions that have rocked the logistics industry over the past few years have made one thing abundantly clear: Infrastructure investment and innovation are key to supply chain resilience and efficiency. It takes both to create the redundancy and available capacity that are essential to keep freight moving, even when the unexpected occurs.
One area of investment has the potential to create additional capacity, and a new alternative for shippers. It centers on better utilization of the inland waterways by increasing container-on-barge traffic, and launching a new container-on-vessel (COV) service. The latter calls for moving containerized cargo on a new, all-water, north-south trade lane connecting the Midwest and St. Louis region to a gateway port on the lower Mississippi River, then on to worldwide destinations.
The COV service will utilize patented, environmentally friendly vessels with the capacity to carry 2,375 shipping containers, 20 feet long by eight feet tall, up the Mississippi River at 13 miles per hour with minimal wake. Expected round-trip time to Memphis is six days, and to St. Louis 10 days, significantly faster than traditional barge tows. Smaller “hybrid” vessels would move through locks and low-lying bridges on the tributary rivers, providing service from Memphis and St. Louis to feeder ports along the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers, including ports in Kansas City and Jefferson City in Missouri, Joliet and Cairo in Illinois, and Fort Smith in Arkansas.
In spring 2022, Missouri officials awarded a $25-million grant to the Jefferson County Port Authority to support development of a state-of-the-art intermodal container facility at its port in Herculaneum, just south of St. Louis, to serve the central Midwest region for both the export and import of containerized cargo. American Patriot Container Transport LLC, which is developing the patented vessels, will soon select a shipyard to build the first four, marking another critical milestone in this initiative. Backers hope the new service will be operational by 2025.
Public- and private-sector, cross-industry and multi-state collaboration played a key role in advancing these ambitious plans over the past few years, and multi-layered collaboration is also the foundation for many of the St. Louis region’s other recent successes. It’s at the heart of the approach the region takes to identify multimodal infrastructure priorities and advocate for funding for them. The new $222 million Merchants Bridge, one of the region’s highest-priority freight infrastructure projects, opened in September 2022, doubling capacity on the bridge that serves six Class I railroads and Amtrak crossing over the Mississippi River at St. Louis.
Sustainable infrastructure funding will be critical to delivering bold new initiatives such as COV service. With any new option to transport freight, service providers and the regions offering it will need to demonstrate how carriers can overcome the risks before they will embrace it. Continued industry collaboration and engagement will be essential to educate shippers about the savings COV service can deliver, and Maritime Administration grants can be pursued to help bridge the startup cost gap.
Outlook: While work remains before the U.S. inland waterway will be fully utilized with the logistics industry’s support, the progress being made is real, as are the savings that shippers can realize. It’s likely only a matter of time before we see container-laden vessels navigating the marine highway, and helping to revolutionize the container-shipping industry.
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