Developers eager to establish inland port network on Mississippi River

A coastal marsh at sunset.Work is underway to develop container-handling terminals in as many as five states along the Mississippi River.

A coastal marsh at sunset.

A major multiyear effort to develop a container facility network in as many as five states along the Mississippi River is well underway, with initial cargo anticipated to move through the network in 2024.

The effort has many moving pieces, which is why it has taken nearly a decade to develop the network, organizers say. The pieces include a terminal and rail expansion in Plaquemines Parish in southern Louisiana; the development of container terminal facilities in Memphis, Tennessee, St. Louis, Fort Smith, Arkansas, and potentially Joliet, Illinois; and a container-on-vessel service that would call at those locations.

“We’re creating a new transportation alternative for the supply chain. We’re calling it the new north-south trade lane for containerized cargo,” said Sal Litrico, chief executive officer of American Patriot Container Transport LLC, who pointed out this trade lane will use the Mississippi River and tributary rivers. 

Developers say the network and the container-on-vessel service provides Midwest agricultural, energy and chemicals shippers to take advantage of the expanded Panama Canal.

At the mouth of the Mississippi River, public and private interests are seeking to develop a gateway intermodal container terminal at a greenfield site in Plaquemines Parish, 50 miles south of New Orleans. The terminal will be served by unit trains, trucks, air and marine modes, Litrico said. 

Last November, APM Terminals signed a letter of intent to operate the planned Plaquemines Port, Harbor and Terminal District (PPPHTD) container terminals and intermodal facility. 

According to Louisiana 23 Development Co., which is overseeing the first phase of the terminal’s development and the extension of existing rail service into the site, state and federal permit applications have been submitted, with some of those permits on track for approval in late 2022 or early 2023. The rail extension project also began work in November 2021 and is set to be completed in late 2023. 

The projected timeline has initial cargo moves occurring in 2024, the developer told FreightWaves. According to PPPHTD’s website, phase one will enable the terminal to handle vessels of 22,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, with the potential to expand capacity. The Army Corps of Engineers is also building a new federal levee system to reduce flooding risks. 

Developing container terminals at inland ports

A second element to the container terminal network is the development of terminals along the Mississippi River that can manage both import and inland distribution as well as exports of containerized cargo, according to James Hurley, president of developer Hawtex. 

The terminals would be located at inland ports that have existing bulk facilities. “We’re simply taking on additional land that’s available to develop the container terminals and make sure that we have full access to Class I rail, trucking, interstate access, things of that nature,” Hurley said.

Potential businesses that could take advantage of the terminal system include bulk liquids, retail, manufacturing and agricultural products, Hurley said.

“We’re hoping to attract anything that could move in a container,” Hurley said. “I think there are very diverse and robust opportunities to move a whole cadre of different cargoes.”

The terminals in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and potentially Illinois could be expanded in phases as market demand warrants. Phase one will be predicated on having long-term contracts and ensuring that there is a balance of cargo between loaded, export-bound containers and import-bound containers, according to Hurley. 

The second phase of the terminal expansion “will be our shippers, our customers — or what we call our BCOs, or beneficial cargo owners — dictating where the next location will be. And that’ll be predicated on volume and term of contracts. So right now, we’re talking to some significant shippers that have needs in St. Louis, Arkansas and also Joliet, Illinois,” Hurley said, noting that phases three and four could entail network expansion if there is the volume necessary to justify the expansion and provide more options. 

Local and state officials have appeared to embrace the development of the terminals, with the Missouri Legislature dedicating $25 million in May to facilitate development at the Port of Herculaneum in the greater St. Louis area, according to local news reports

As the new terminals are being developed, the third element of this project — the container-on-service — would also come into play. There would be four initial vessels, with plans to expand the fleet size to 12 vessels, as market conditions warrant. The four initial vessels could start operations in the second quarter of 2024 and serve the Plaquemines area, Litrico said.

These container-on-vessels are being built in a way that allows for containers to move at high volume and higher speeds, according to Litrico. 

“Our vessels go up river speeds against the current at 13 miles an hour versus conventional 4 to 5 miles an hour, resulting in significant cost savings and time to market,” Litrico said.

Developers are hopeful that these three pieces will result in a robust alternative to shipping to ports on the West and East coasts. 

“When you add all those three legs together, we are bringing a new net landed cost and optionality to the supply chain and utilizing the tributaries in Mississippi River,” Litrico said. 

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