MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Illinois Soybean Association is at the forefront of an effort by a coalition of mayors and others to improve freight movement on the Mississippi River.

A proposal for the utilization of container shipping on barges is one of the steps announced here at the first-ever Mississippi River Economy Summit. The event was the culmination of the conference held by the Mississippi Rivers and Towns Initiative, a coalition comprised of 59 mayors of cities along the river.

Container-on-barge shipping could provide a streamlined method of transporting smaller quantities of crops such as soy.

Containers — which can be stacked on semi beds — are commonly transferred from trucks to railcars. But it is not being used on the Mississippi.

“You can have smaller lot sizes. That’s part of the advantage,” said Scott Sigman, who works with the ISA as director of trade and transportation. “We’re examining what the logistics stream would look like using the waterway to go the ports in the Gulf and on to the ports in the Pacific.”

One advantage would be dividing shipments into smaller loads, such as non-GMO crops, or shipping beans with different traits.

“It’s going to be bigger lot sizes, but smaller than would fit into a full hold of a ship, which might be too much for small buyers overseas,” Sigman said.

Counting the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio and Kaskaskia, Illinois has more river miles — more than 1,100 — than any other state, according to Sigman. There are 60 river terminals loading bulk in barge across Illinois.

“We feel there are opportunities,” the director said. “We’re collaborating with different companies, ocean carriers and other countries. There is potential for volumes of containers to be more competitive than rail. With 45,000 farmers in this state, we’re looking to help them get their product more cost-competitively to a sustainable global market.”

Mayor Larry Brown of Natchez, Miss., said container shipping could help relieve traffic jams on the river, which result in an estimated $200 billion annually in lost revenue. Among those pledging support is Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has embraced a plan to increase river shipping by using containers.

“That will relieve freight congestion and create economic opportunity to our ports and other inter-model industries,” Brown said.

He noted that Natchez is the oldest settlement on the river and has seen a number of changes in transportation through the years. In 2016, the city will celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding.

“We can speak with authority of the value of transportation along the river, whether only a push-boat or north on the first paddlewheel steamers,” Brown said.

“The river system is the oldest and most important transportation network in our country. And we’re still operating like we did 100 years ago. We’ve got to move forward, and we’ve got to have help.”

Container-on-barge shipping existed on the Lower Mississippi from 2007 to 2009, largely for cotton spot markets, but such a system has not been attempted throughout the river.

While there has been some contention in the past between political entities on the northern and southern portions of the river, the mayors gathered in Memphis stressed that they have a common goal.

“We learn each time we come together about issue others parts of the river have,” said Mayor David Kleis of St. Cloud, Minn. “We’re united from the headwaters to the Gulf. We understand the differences.

“One billion people in the world are fed by what comes down the Mississippi River. That’s a significant aspect of the river that unites us. A million jobs also unites us. When there are challenges in the northern stem that affects the southern stem, we’re partners now.”

Among other issues the mayors agree on is the need for modernizing and expanding the lock and dam system on the Mississippi. Shorter locks mean coupling and uncoupling barge tows, resulting in lost time — and with that, lost revenue.

“Locks and dams on upper Mississippi are anywhere from 50 to 70 years old,” said Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton. “They’ve outlived their useful life. They’re too narrow. You have to break the tows in half. It costs the freight companies and farmers additional money.

“It would be like a truck wanting to go across the city of Memphis and lighten its load four or five times, going back and forth to make a transition through a heavy traffic area. We have got to get modern. We’ve got to build facilities that bring us into the new technology of operating globally.

“We’ve got to speak out. We can’t work on obsolete equipment anymore. We’ve got to stand up and tell it like it is. We are not getting a fair shake from Congress.”