Saturday, September 15, 2012

Montgomery and Bulk Commodity Transport:




 At first glance a look at the two photos above does have something of a before and after aspect to it, and the second photo is certainly more festive. Make no mistake about it, the water borne carriage of bulk commodities was never a glamorous business. They didn't exactly hold festivals on the old cotton docks. Even today bulk commodity transportation by water is gritty business where progress is measured first by tons of product loaded, then by fuel efficiency per "ton mile" hauled.  I certainly don't advocate redevelopment of Montgomery's present river front as a bulk commodity barge port. As described in an earlier posting the thing to do with the "new waterfront" is more of the same. Do everything possible to attract river passenger excursion and cruise traffic right there. But the key to being able to do that is keeping the locks that make the Alabama River navigable past Montgomery operating.  The best assurance that these locks will survive any future eras of tight Federal budgets is to restore the Alabama as a barge carrier. Terminals can be well above or below the new waterfront, but the main thing depressing barge traffic isn't  water depth, current speeds, or channel markings, its lack of cargo handling infrastructure. 

 When all weather roads and reliable rail roads came into the city from all four directions it seems like the forestry, farm, and hard minerals products of the river valley went to these newer, faster modes. Back when gasoline and diesel fuel was cheap the slow transit times on the river routes didn't seem to make sense, though most of the commodities shipped don't spoil. But still speed seemed to be factored in as if he who got to market first with a load of soybeans somehow received a better price.

 Maybe in the days before computer generated commodity forecasts there might even have been some truth to the idea. So while the old cotton packets retired to eventually be replaced by the modern day towboat and barge on the big rivers , on the Alabama the river, traffic simply slowly disappeared. Now things have changed, fuel is expensive and the incredible fuel efficiency of towboats and barges are causing bulk commodity shippers to again look to the rivers and canals where once they had forgotten them. Having barge transport available in a region does wonders even out side of its' own productivity and efficiency. The presence of the barge alternative acts to lower rail freight rates. Lower rail freight rates attract business and make existing businesses more attractive. Of all of the riverine activities that Montgomery needs to be generating, the development of bulk commodity transportation on the river is the most difficult and uncertain.

 One of the greatest difficulties is simply the fact that the city can't do it alone, its a regional issue. Most of the export bulk commodities are produced in more rural areas of the river valley. Farmer's co-ops, rural utilities, mining interests all have to cooperate to get the job done. But it's not as difficult as it first appears if there is action before the locks close. Demonstration projects would be inexpensive, as would be the related publicity, but the effects could be electrifying, even if in the end bulk commodity transport only becomes a very minor economic activity. Here is what we mean by a demonstration project. Before attempting to get an existing tow boat service to provide regular service to the region, run some charter trips. For example Montgomery like any city needs fuel. Perhaps there is some remnant fuel dock at Maxwell where I think it is more probable than not that the flight line once received aviation fuel by barge. If not, with the help of a mechanical engineer and a couple of Coast Guard certified tankermen, the Coast Guard itself, and a tanker truck company; a few truck loads of fuel could be transferred from a tank barge to trucks from a pretty make shift landing.

 The actual charter of a small tow boat and tank barge wouldn't be very expensive. The participating tank truck company would be expected to pay fair market price for the fuel received. The city and whatever booster groups it can muster up bear the few thousand dollars charter charges for the tow boat and tank barge. This event certainly doesn't demonstrate on its face that tank barge delivery is cheaper than tank truck or tank rail car. Quite the contrary when you have no proper infrastructure and no regular contracts for carriage this demonstration wouldn't be possible without subsidy. The demonstration is about capability , that tank barges can reach Montgomery, that water front land is available, that the city is in business and ready to welcome tank barge operators. 

 Now to add frosting to the cake, find a bio diesel maker below the dams. Spend a week with volunteers and a tank truck gathering up all the old cooking oil in the city. After receiving the fuel from the demonstration tank barge send a load of old cooking oil down river to the bio diesel manufacturer, even if you have to do it in a smaller clean deck tank.   This would be like catnip to tank barge operators, most tank barge traffic is deadhead on return. Aviation fuel moves east out of Houston/Galveston towards the Florida Pan Handle, heating oil and gasoline heads north out of Baton Rouge and these tank barges generally return empty. But with a little forethought, starting from scratch the Montgomery area could "go green" and become the most envied run for small tank barge operators since two way loaded traffic is so rare in the business. Again on such a subsidized trip the costs  are excessive for real commerce. But the actual efficiencies are well demonstrated where the infrastructure is developed. What these demonstration voyages are demonstrating is the continuing navigability of this underutilized river, the awareness of the business community, and the interests of the cargo owners. You can do the same thing even cheaper with a single barge load of sand from any construction material supplier above the locks. Do at least one demonstration voyage with a liquid commodity and one with a dry. Just be sure to generate lots of publicity. Maybe private industry will pick up the ball and run with it, and may be not. There are many factors in investment decisions but you will have awakened a sleeping giant, eventually industries needing water transport will find their way to you. Of more immediate benefit the demonstrations will shake up the rail roads servicing the area. All regional rail customers will find them selves in a better bargaining position. Nothing makes rail lines avoid over the barrel freight rates like the presence of towboat and barge competition.

Well, let's summarize Montgomery.(1) At this moment the city is navigable, commercial inland navigation can reach the city but navigation related or dependent industries are not present. (2)The navigable potential of the city, once a real regional river port is under developed, as is the navigable potential of the river above the locks. (3) Rising transportation fuel costs in the region are causing bulk commodity producers to reconsider water transportation, (4) The success of the inland cruise industry has created a market for more ports of call, Montgomery profiles like a winner. (5) Other possibilities exist for waterways related economic growth including the location of manufacturers of out sized machinery to river front sites near the city, and enhanced recreational boating activity  and repair with related small commercial work boat repair.. (6) Just at this moment, so ripe for the revitalization of navigation related industry, the nation finds itself in a governmental budget crisis and the locks that make the city navigable could be considered for elimination of funding due to the underdevelopment of a waterway related economy.  At this moment in time Montgomery and the river region need to be embarked on a crash water way industry/ water way vessel traffic development plan or face the real possibility of the loss of future navigability forever. Navigability is a powerful economic asset for a city, the former Port of Montgomery must become again a river port and the regional leader for navigational improvement and development. Navigability may enhance future economic development by as much as one third  of the total regional economy of the future, or it may languish a bit longer, but the day the city and region start on waterway development other surface modes will be more flexible  in their ton mile rates with regional businesses and reluctant to impose anything like the usurious rates  that have been applied to other communities where the rails are assured of no competition.

 I t was very enjoyable staying with you Montgomery during the storm that passed over my home.  Your city is beautiful, clean, historic, interesting, and fun. It is growing and has a solid base, but as a pilot seeing your former port I felt that you have a sleeping giant living with you. He is a powerful but friendly giant called "Navigability" and if you wake him up he will do wonders for you, but if you fail to wake him soon he may die in his sleep. If that happens ,none like him will ever appear again. We have to close now and move on to describe many other types of maritime developments around the world for our readers who stretch from Russia and Europe across America and Canada to China. Many of these events are earth shattering such as the war like confrontations that we describe in the South China Sea that our regular media so often seem to ignore. Many of these developments will draw less time and space than we have devoted to what is only possibility and potential in Montgomery, but frankly Montgomery you seem worth it. We hope you'll frequent our pages occasionally to develop some maritime awareness. You have a great maritime history don't lose it or your potential maritime future. Your city seems to be far more than the sum of its historical past. 

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