Port of Pittsburgh panel does study of container-on-barge pre-feasibility

A pre-feasibility study completed by the Port of Pittsburgh Commission (PPC) found that sufficient infrastructure already exists in many steel-handling and other river terminal facilities within the Port of Pittsburgh District to begin container-on-barge (COB) transport on the Ohio River.

The study was conducted by the PPC and funded through a cooperative agreement with the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD). It comes as MARAD begins to examine new ways to encourage waterway transportation.

“Containers have been regularly used on European and Chinese inland vessels, but are only now finding their way into US inland waterways,” said PPC Executive Director James McCarville. “Efforts to promote container-on-barge in the past in the US have met with a ‘chicken and egg syndrome,’” said McCarville, chief investigator on the study. “Barge lines are reluctant to commit to a service without the guarantee of cargo, and container shippers are reluctant to commit cargo for a service that's not regularly offered.”

While the study found that some specialized river terminal yard equipment would be required, the bigger problems were lack of port marketing data and public-private “intermodal” partnerships to book waterway-cargo for multiple shippers and destinations.

To rectify this, the PPC retained the services of Martin Associates and Reebie Associated to better identify potential southwestern Pennsylvania users of a COB service.

The study describes characteristics of successful COB services around the world, problems typically encountered when trying to start a COB service, and strategies for COB services any port on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers likely would have to overcome, including:

  • Port needs for equipment and market strategies

  • Shipper needs for easy access to cost data

  • Operator needs to eliminate the cost of double-handling through single bills of lading

  • System needs to eliminate unreliability of locks

The study also highlights the potential for combining containers with existing domestic cargoes, such as steel to establish port-to-port pairs for eventual intermodal distribution.

Finally, the research also calls for building on relationships between ports, such as the Inland Waterway Intermodal Cooperative Program and the inland Short Sea Shipping Initiative to better develop cooperative efforts to promote and implement COB throughout the inland waterway transportation system.

To address problems identified, McCarville said the PPC was embarking on a multi-faceted program.

Mary Ann Bucci, PPC marketing director, said the commission was making data more available to shippers. She pointed to SmartBarge, an online marketing tool developed by the PPC and students from Carnegie Mellon University to estimate cost of moving goods, including containers, between Pittsburgh and other ports, as opposed to the cost of moving the same cargo via truck or rail. She said the commission recently retained RayTrans Inc to update its SmartBarge project.

On another front, McCarville said the PPC has retained Martin Associates and Reebie Associates to undertake what may be the first effort to identify waterway-contestable container markets that could be served by water. Finally, he said the commission had retained Dickerson & Mangus Inc to help the PPC get the word out that waterway transportation can lower the cost of doing business in Pennsylvania.

To see a copy of the full COB pre-feasibility study, visit the web site at www.port.pittsburgh.pa.us and click on Port Information, or phone Mary Ann Bucci at 412-201-7331.

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