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
“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
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
“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
“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.”