By the summer, America’s Central Port is hoping to be loading 20-foot containers on river barges with grain and soy beans so it could be shipped internationally.
To help make that a reality, America’s Central Port in Granite City has been awarded a $713,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help move grain via barges on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.
The money will be used to buy or lease equipment necessary for loading and unloading grain and helping with the delivery process, said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port.
There also will be a $200,000 match, which will be split by America’s Central Port and a private operator, whom Wilmsmeyer could not disclose yet. How the match will be split also has yet to be determined, he said.
Wilmsmeyer said the grant will help pay for a “demonstration project” to show grain can be transported via river barges and is financially feasible.
As part of the project, empty 20-foot long containers would be transported via barge from the Chicago area to Beardstown and Granite City on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.
Wilmsmeyer said Beardstown is a central location for grain to be loaded onto containers on the barges. Additional grain could also be loaded in Granite City.
Containers will then be loaded with grain and either sent back up to the Chicago market to be loaded onto trains, placed on trains in St. Louis, or continue down the Mississippi River on barges to New Orleans.
“It is hoped that the project will be underway by summer 2017 in an effort to demonstrate that river movement of containers is cost-effective and sustainable,” Wilmsmeyer said in an email to the BND.
Wilmsmeyer said the hope is jobs can be created in the long-term with these projects.
The aim is to convince farmers, shippers, freight forwarders and other potentially interested parties they could move grain in shipping containers along the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf of Mexico where it could be moved to a steam ship and transported to Asia.
The major method of moving grain to Asia has been to load it onto trains to the West Coast before its loaded onto ships.
Wilmsmeyer conceded going the all-water route would be a longer route for the grain, but it could be at a lower cost. He said the key is having enough volume and making sure the barges are filled.
“If we’re demonstrating it’s bringing a lower cost, hopefully it will be sustainable,” Wilmsmeyer said.
In total, six projects across the country received federal marine highway grant money this year, which totaled $4.85 million. More than half of the money went to projects along the Mississippi River corridor.
“It is essential that we invest in integrated, multi-modal transportation systems that support the efficient movement of freight and people throughout this country,” said Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, maritime administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation, in a statement. “Our nation’s extensive network of waterways, riverports and seaports provide an opportunity to help stimulate economic growth while reducing congestion on our national freight transportation system.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation also awarded a planning grant for a partnership that includes the Port of St. Louis, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, the Inland River Port & Terminal Association, and the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association in order to support planning efforts to develop and encourage container shipping along the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, which includes mayors of municipalities along the river, pushes for improvement in water quality, sustainable development, and economy and environmental protection along the river.
Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, said containers can be filled with bulk goods such as aggregate metal or glass, agricultural commodities such as soy beans or grains, or even finished heavy goods such as furniture or lawn mower engines.
According to the group, commercial navigation on the Mississippi River generates nearly $5 billion in annual revenue and supports 20,000 jobs.
However, very few of the more than 30 million containers that enter the country every year use the inland waterways, according to the initiative.
“The mayors of the Mississippi River have been working to build a sustainable economy for the waterway and the return of container movement on the river is big part of that effort,” said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.