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When business and civic leaders talk about transportation issues there is often a lot of talk about trains, planes and automobiles. But one subject that gets very little mention is the importance of the waterway system to the St. Louis regional economy.

Millions of tons of commodities move through the Port of Metropolitan St. Louis each year. The latest figures by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put the total at 32.4 million tons of products that moved through the port during 2004. That makes the St. Louis port the third largest inland river port by tonnage in the country. Huntington, West Virginia is first with 81 million tons. Pittsburgh is second, with
52 million tons.

Including all the ports across the country, the St. Louis port is the 21st largest. St. Louis is ahead of such deep-water ports as Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore and Boston. As Nick Nichols, operations manager at the City of St. Louis Port Authority notes, St. Louis is a “huge distribution center” when it comes to bulk commodities.

Of the different commodities that move through the port, 80 percent include products such as petroleum, coal, grain and chemicals. “By using the river for these heavy commodities we save moving it by truck and rail,” says Nichols. He says it is cheaper to move these commodities by the waterway system, since one barge usually holds 1,500 tons, equaling the capacity of about 60 trucks or 15 rail cars. And according to World Agriculture Forum Founder, President and Chairman of the Board Dr. Leonard Guarraia, “St. Louis is the largest inland water port for agricultural products in the world.”

The port extends 70 miles along the banks of the Mississippi River from the southern boundary of Jefferson County, Mo. to the northern boundary of Madison County, Ill. Within the area, there are over 130 peers, wharves and docks. Plus there are about 55 fleeting areas, which are basically like large parking lots for barges.

There is no one person responsible for the Metropolitan Port of St. Louis. A total of six port authorities are responsible for their individual section of the river. On the Illinois side is the Kaskaskia Regional Port District, the Southwest Regional Port District and the
Tri-City Regional Port District. On the Missouri side is Jefferson County Port Authority, St. Louis County Port Authority and the City of St. Louis Port Authority.

The Port of Metropolitan St. Louis is at the center of the nation’s inland water system. The port is at the confluence of three major rivers, the Illinois River, the Missouri River and the Mississippi River. The inland waterway system connects the port with industrial centers in 15 states located along the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee Rivers and also with the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

St. Louis is the northern most point on the Mississippi with year around, ice-free, open water navigation. North of the St. Louis port on the Mississippi is a series of locks and dams. Only 15 barges can move through a lock at a time. South of the port is lock-free all the way down to the Port of New Orleans. Therefore more than 30 barges, depending on the depth and width of the river, can freely travel to and from the Gulf in a single tow.

Nichols says it takes about 10 days to move a barge from New Orleans up to St. Louis against the current. It only takes five days going down. Since the port is open 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, there is often activity along the river day and night.

Some of that activity takes place at the city’s municipal terminal, about a mile north of the Gateway Arch. It has two warehouses, one with 90,000 square feet and the other with 20,000 square feet. Nichols says that at the city terminal, commodities can be moved off the barge, put on a conveyor belt and put on a truck, all within 18 seconds.

Other river activity takes place at private businesses, such as Slay Industries. The St. Louis-based transportation and distribution firm operates a 300,000 square foot warehouse in south St. Louis. It is a major distribution center for chemical companies and provides packaging for dry bulk products. Another example is Alberici Constructors. The St. Louis-based construction firm has a facility in north St. Louis used for bringing in steel products to be used for its construction projects.

AEP River Operations, based in Chesterfield, is one of the busiest barge shippers in the area. The affiliate of American Electric Power moved 7.5 million tons of products through the St. Louis port last year. Mark Carr, a spokesperson for AEP, says products include a mix of agricultural products, construction materials and steel materials.

Carr says that bringing up containers on barges may also be in the future for the St. Louis port. “We see a bright future for a really infant movement of bringing containers up from the Gulf on barges loaded with both commodities and with finished consumer goods,” says Carr. “We need to get the right level of infrastructure: cranes to handle containers and trucks and rail facilities bordering the river, so that we can be on the leading edge and get our share of this emerging inter-modal container business.”

On the Illinois side, the Tri-City Regional Port District handles over two million tons of products a year. The dry bulk terminals at the Tri-City Port are capable of handling any type of dry bulk materials outbound to the river or inbound to truck or rail. The port district also operates a general cargo facility and a liquid bulk facility.

“We’re intrinsically part of the overall freight transportation system,” says Bob Wydra, executive director at Tri-City. “It is really the interconnections between the river and rail and the river and the highway that makes cargo shipments cost effective.”

Wydra says that it is important to for regional leaders to continue looking at how to tie all the loads of freight transportation together to make them as efficient as possible. It is not necessary, however, to combine all the port authorities and districts in the Port of Metropolitan St. Louis to make this happen. The key, he says, is to work together.

“We’ve got to let people know that we’re really a good place to ship to and through. We need to market together,” says Wydra. “To be successful, we don’t all have to be one. We just have to work together. In the areas that we are working together it will benefit the
public, and benefit the community overall, and the individual port.”



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