Uncharted Waters

The Panama Canal’s expansion could be a boon to Cincinnati’s port. Confused yet?

Illustration by Nicola Meiring

The Cincinnati Enquirer’s front-page news in mid-October that local authorities were looking for ways to capitalize on the imminent expansion of the Panama Canal was hardly the stuff of talk radio. Panama Canal? Huh? But in fact, Enquirer bashers should take note: The newspaper was onto something important, and it is our fault if we don’t have enough sense to pay attention. Fortunately, several concerned people, including the entire Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) are on the case—putting the region ahead of the curve.

So what gives with the Panama Canal, and why should we care? Within three years, the current capacity of the canal will double, thanks to construction now underway. Ships that have forever been forced to unload on the West Coast because their cargoes were too large to inch through the isthmus will have options. They will be able to steam right into the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast.

Unless, says Eric Thomas, general manager of Benchmark River and Rail Terminals, we can stop them in Houston, New Orleans, or Tampa. “The grab for Cincinnati becomes, as they pass these ports, can we snag them?” he explains. “For people in this region getting goods to foreign markets, it will be far more efficient to go through the Gulf, so we’ve got to find out how we can make that happen.” What he’s talking about is the potential for more freight—by river, road, and rail—passing through the region.

In late 2011, Kuninori Matsada, the consul general of Japan, met here with County Commissioner Todd Portune and Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority acting president Ray Schafer to discuss the future of the Port of Cincinnati. “He had been meeting with some of the many Japanese businesses in our region,” Schafer said. “His interest was the river, the Panama Canal, and what we would be doing to take advantage of the changes. We had already identified the issue as important, but his visit here underscored to us how important others perceive it to be.”

They were discussing the river in part because, of the various freight possibilities locally available, it is the one with the most genuine claim to excess capacity. But this isn’t just about the river, which is only useful for transporting commodities (like coal), rather than finished goods (like cars). The issue extends to the DHL hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport; the three railroad companies—CSX, Norfolk Southern, and RailAmerica—that share main lines through the Mill Creek Valley; and our network of highways. As they anticipate growth, two of those—the trains and trucks—have problems.

“This is a significant rail yard here,” Schafer says. “But it’s a choke point. Freight slows down when it gets to Sharonville; CSX controls the throughput. Norfolk Southern may have to wait to use part of CSX’s switching capacity to get through. Sometimes they wait for hours.”

Trucks, which currently move more than 80 percent of the region’s freight, are so numerous, Schafer says, that we have air quality problems already. If all goes according to projections—truck freight is predicted to increase by 63 percent by 2040—it’s a fair assumption that in terms of air pollution, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

From the OKI Regional Freight Plan Study of August 2011: “There are critical links in the highway system which dramatically impact freight mobility. Most notable is the Brent Spence Bridge…. From a freight standpoint, the OKI region would cease to function if the Brent Spence Bridge fails.”

They don’t mince words. Leading the charge to get Cincinnati ready for what he foresees as a “significant change in the way freight moves through North America” is Todd Portune, who, in addition to his commissioner duties, chairs the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District and is a vice president of OKI. No stranger to sound bites, Portune offers a crisp analysis of why moving goods is currently in his crosshairs:

“One: The region has had an awakening concerning transportation’s impact on job development and our ability to turn around the local economy. Two: National and worldwide events are causing a ripple effect that’s prompted this region to take a close look at our freight infrastructure—because there will be a tsunami of freight over the next 30 years, and if we’re not prepared, it will pass us by. Three: Because of the [OKI] study, we have concluded that there is nothing we can do to have greater impact on making the region competitive than improving our freight capacity.”

Portune has led an effort to refocus the Port Authority “to make it better equipped to promote freight.” (Despite its title, the office has only really been active since 2002, primarily to deal with brownfields and economic development. Classic “port” issues, such as the river, have received little of its attention.) When the new Port Authority CEO is named—there were three finalists for the job as this issue went to press—he or she will have operational capability and experience with freight issues, and will be tasked with bringing about the improvements needed.

One thing all parties are interested in doing is lengthening the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ official designation of the Port of Cincinnati from its current 26 miles to the distance between the Huntington and Louisville ports—approximately 95 miles. The advantage of such a move is a proportionately augmented ability to obtain federal funding for port operations and a greatly enhanced profile when, say, a businessman in Japan looks at a map of North America with an eye to identifying the largest inland port cities.

“There’s broad recognition of the issue,” Portune says, “and not much disagreement on its substance. There’s some conflict on how you pay for it all, how you make it operational. We’re working now to bring the various interests together to develop a consensus approach.”

Let’s hope he can pull it off. In the mid-1800s, Cincinnati had a powerful steamboat franchise, but soon enough, Chicago got trains and Detroit got cars. Now freight is back in play. When the music stops, we don’t want to get caught without a chair.

Major Price Tag
OKI estimates that the total cost for improvement to regional transportation facilities would be $4.4 billion dollars, but that includes $2.3 billion to replace the Brent Spence Bridge.
River Efficiency
The carrying capacity of one tow (12 barges) is equivalent to that of 180 rail cars or 720 trucks. On average, a barge can carry one ton of cargo 514 miles for every gallon of fuel. It’s 202 miles for a train and 59 for a truck.
Traffic Jam
Current estimates project a 56 percent increase in overall freight in this region by 2040. That includes a 63 percent increase in trucking, a 38 percent increase in rail, and a 5.5 percent increase in barge shipping. The hope is that the river might be able to shoulder more of the load.
Port Boss
At press time, the three finalists for the Port of Greater Cincinnati Economic Development Authority’s CEO job were Laura Brunner of East Walnut Hills, Thaddeus Cohen of Tallahassee, Florida, and Odis Jones of West Long Branch, New Jersey. Each of them boasts significant development experience, though none of them have previously run a port authority.

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