Building an inland empire

April 1, 2005
If the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority in Ohio has its way, some of the congestion plaguing U.S.-Canadian border crossings at Detroit-Windsor

If the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority in Ohio has its way, some of the congestion plaguing U.S.-Canadian border crossings at Detroit-Windsor and the Niagara Frontier will be reduced as passenger car and truck traffic takes to the water. Specifically, Cleveland officials are moving ahead with plans to introduce a ferry service across Lake Erie in the spring of 2006.

Port officials have been optimistically waiting for the U.S. Congress to pass a highway bill that will provide crucial funding for the project, which was part of a 1998 master plan projecting transportation needs to 2020. A feasibility study in 2003 examined whether a ferry could be operated profitably, and the city has gone ahead with plans for regular ferry service that would shuttle 250,000 passengers, 42,000 vehicles and — important to logistics professionals — 25,000 trucks back and forth across the lake each year.

Dutch maritime operator Royal Wagenborg has been contracted as the operator for the ferry service, and it plans to lease two ferries initially, one based in Canada and one on the U.S. side. Eventually, it will have vessels built for the service.

With $24 billion in trade passing between the two regions in 2002, the fourhour crossing could be a boon for automotive suppliers and manufacturers, who account for a large portion of the goods moving in both directions. Proponents point out that the highway journey between Cleveland and Detroit takes five hours, and that only puts the goods at the Detroit-Windsor crossing.

The proposed ferry route from Cleveland to Ontario's Port Stanley would place northbound shipments in the heart of a manufacturing district with easy access to highways connecting with major markets like Toronto. Southbound, the Port of Cleveland docks are located within easy access to Interstates 90, 71 and 77 and to the Ohio Turnpike. There is also a nearby intermodal operation on the Norfolk Southern railroad.

The highway reauthorization bill currently in Congress will be critical to development of a multi-million-dollar terminal at Cleveland's Dock 28. A version of the bill passed the House in March.

A stickier issue is the Canadian port of Port Stanley. The harbor at Port Stanley belongs to Transport Canada. Under a national port divestiture program started in 1995, the port was identified for sale. No private concern has been found to operate or develop the port, which has also not had regular dredging maintenance during the intervening years.

While fees paid by the ferry service would significantly reduce the operating deficit for the port, the impact of the ferry service is not fully quantified. Some local resistance has mounted against having high volumes of vehicle traffic routed through areas of the city that include schools and private residences.

While Cleveland's port includes a U.S. Coast Guard station, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and is part of a foreign trade zone, Port Stanley, which claims about 2,500 residents, is a commercial fishing village that still remembers a failed group of investors who brought ferry service there in the 1990s and then literally sailed off into the night, never to return.

Tonnage passing through the Port of Cleveland has been on the rise, centered on bulk commodities. Port officials note that 90% of the goods that enter through the Port of Cleveland are consumed within 75 miles of the port.

There is hope that this increased activity will raise the profile of the port and help it promote its image as an alternative to relieve some congestion developing at East Coast ports. While the proposed ferry service would be roll-on/ roll-off (RO/RO), East Coast port diversions would likely be containerized cargo which would have to be lifted on and off the vessels.

While Cleveland sorts out its future, other ferry services are being developed to cross the Great Lakes between the U.S. and Canada. Most, like the Toronto-Rochester, N.Y., ferry, are focused on passenger traffic. But, while Erie, Pa., is looking at a passenger ferry to start operations in 2006 between Erie and Dover, Ont., the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority was approached by a Canadian company in 2003 and asked to examine the feasibility of an Erie-Nanticoke, Ont., truck ferry.

Not to be left out, Lorain, Ohio (just west of Cleveland) is examining prospects for a ferry service to the Lake Erie Islands and to Canada. Its focus appears to be primarily passenger service.

Inland from Lake Erie, Pittsburgh, Pa., hopes to capitalize on the natural resource that brought about the founding of the city, its position on three rivers. Containerized barge service is scheduled to start on May 2, 2005, with plans to operate twice-monthly round trips between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

Crowded ports on both coasts and rising fuel costs are moving more traffic to New Orleans, where the Napoleon Container Yard opened in 2004, says Buddy Johns, president of CSG Company. That facility and Biloxi, Miss., have easy access to the Mississippi and Ohio River systems, Johns explains. About 60-70 containers can fit on each barge, adds to James McCarville, executive director of Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

CSG has also activated the region's only third-party foreign trade zone at its Leetsdale Terminal.

A little bit off the Ohio River is Charleston, W.V., the site of another inland port proposal. The Kanawha Valley Local Port Authority hopes to integrate the Kanawha tributary to the Ohio River into a multi-modal plan that it says will provide "competitive, timely transportation" stretching as far east as the Port of Norfolk, Va., and west to Chicago. The Heartland Corridor, as it calls the proposal, would help to handle what its studies suggest will be a 300% increase in cargo volume destined for the Midwest.

Along the route, the multi-modal link would include Norfolk's double-stack rail service to Columbus, Ohio, and intermodal ramp site in Prichard, W.V., inland waterway service via the Kanawha tributary and Ohio River, and regional truck service.


Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority

Kanawha Valley Local Port Authority

Lorain, Ohio Port Authority

Norfolk Southern Corp.

Port of Biloxi

Port of Cleveland

Port of New Orleans

Port of Pittsburgh

Port of Rochester, New York

Port Stanley, Ontario

Royal Wagenborg

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