Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Montgomery and Navigation


                                                              File:Alabama Capitol Building.jpg

 Montgomery is a transportation hub where both north -south highways to and from the Gulf Coast meet east- west highways across the Southern Coastal Plain. The same is true for rail transport. But originally Montgomery was situated in dense forested country with few and poor roads, yet it was a transportation center. Steamboats plying the Alabama River took on cargoes of regional timber and agricultural products at Montgomery and carried them to sea at Mobile for export. The same steamboats   returned with New England and European manufactured products landed at Mobile for consignees in interior Alabama serviced by the Port of Montgomery. Then came the rail roads followed by all weather highways and then the Interstate system and almost all of the cargo moved to these faster systems and it all seemed natural and smelled like "progress". Or so it seemed as long as gasoline and diesel oil sold for pocket change per gallon. But times are changing.

 Fuel for trucks and trains is becoming as expensive as wine and everyone in transportation is examining how to get the most tons of cargo moved per mile at the least cost in gallons of fuel per mile. Barge traffic emerges as a partial  solution. While slow, barge transport is head and shoulders over every other form of surface transport in terms of fuel efficiency per ton mile. Nothing else comes close. So barge transport is emerging as the transportation mode of choice for cargoes that are not time sensitive. Coal, grain, timber, soybeans, are among the solid bulk commodity exports of the region surrounding Montgomery. But as we have mentioned before The Alabama River hasn't been used much of late for commercial transportation so it has little commercial infrastructure for getting the commodities that would like to ship by barge onto a barge. Because of that the region has little if any regular barge service. What comes first the barge service via improvised and temporary cargo handling facilities or infrastructure. These are all risky investment decisions but the driving factor is that cargo is here. The cargo will be here whether or not the locks close as a result of a future budget cut. But if the locks close , the demand for cheaper transportation costs will dampen should barge transport no longer be in the realm of possibility. The trick in preserving navigability through a well maintained but presently under utilized lock and dam system is the generation of hull movements and cargo movements through those locks. Both parties want to cut the cost of government but both parties want to grow jobs. An under utilized but awakening system seen as a job generator is not something that either party wants to shut down. The key is to get something important moving now. That something need not be an export, but it needs to be something important.

 Every town uses fuel, Montgomery home of an Air Base and a civil regional air port uses a lot of aviation fuel. Millions of gallons pass about 100 miles below the city in tank barges along the Gulf Intracoastal waterway from refineries in Houston to air bases in the Florida Pan Handle. A north turn at the mouth of the Alabama River and some of those tank barges could be bound for Montgomery. There is a reason why aviation fuel moves by tank barge. It is way cheaper per "ton mile" than movement by rail tank car, or 18 wheeler, even cheaper than a pipeline. For military fuels it is also more secure. Before WWII such fuels moved by coastal tanker, WW II illustrated to us just how vulnerable such movements could be to submarine attack. Submarines, however, can't get in a canal that is barely 12 feet deep. Waterways can be a difficult target to take out, even those served by locks. At some seasons of the year on many waterways the lock gates are left open on both sides for a considerable part of the year. Bombing the lock out of season would not disrupt commerce in any immediate sense. Pipe lines can be cut, rails can be cut, hard surfaced roads rendered impassible. Bombs dropped on waterways are generally a waste of time. Critical cargoes like military aviation fuels are moving along thousands of miles of waterways on any given day, an enemy may target individual tows  but at great expense of search and loiter time and then just to disrupt part of one day's production. If the enemy gets lucky and sinks a barge at a critical point, waterways are the only mode of transport that can be restored by demolition. If there is a rush the damaged barge can be exploded instead of salvaged and traffic is back to normal in no time. This security plus the the economy of tank barge transport has kept the Florida Panhandle military air stations on barge fuel transport since the Intracoastal Canal opened.  Now look at this aerial photo of Maxwell Air Force Base:

File:Maxwell Air Force Base.jpg

It is clear from the photo if you look in the upper right hand corner that  a corner of the base is situated on the river. This old pilot doubts that  is an accident.There seems to be a roadway connecting an island at one point perhaps there were or are fuel infrastructure located there or there was at one time. Maxwell being the home of both the Air University and the Air Force War College it probably doesn't have all of the flight line activity that it once had. But if it is not receiving fuel by barge today it is more probable than not that it once did. It is imperative for city fathers intent on saving Montgomery's navigability to determine whether or not Maxwell is still fueled by barge .If it is, you have struck the mother load. If those locks actively still support a major defense facility like Maxwell that alone may be enough when combined with a showing by city and regional officials of a serious intent and plan to develop marine transportation in the near future to stay the hand that wields the budget axe.

 If Maxwell is still served by tank barge for aviation fuels that needs to be known and pointed to as a rationale for keeping the locks functional. If the system is still at work, it might be lent to the city for an experiment. A system that can handle aviation fuel can probably handle gasoline. The city could get together with a local gasoline distributor on the delivery of a demonstration barge load of gasoline.
If the city could receive a significant portion of its gasoline by tank barge at some point in the future consumers in Montgomery could actually pay a few pennies a gallon less at the pump. But more important the city would have a very efficient means of receiving big quantities of fuel in emergencies that might involve the cutting of other lines of fuel transport. Waterside fuel handling systems usually include considerable tank farms giving the city something of a reserve. Again all this requires infrastructure which Montgomery doesn't have. That one barge load of gasoline won't be anything but a demonstration project designed to increase public interest and to show the feasibility of liquid cargo operations on the river at Montgomery.

The city needs the cooperation of the command at Maxwell. Those who will approach the Congress. will need the full story of Maxwell's connection to the river past, present, if any,and potential. The potential is surely there, the past is more probably than not there. The present if not there needs to be created now through some sort of demonstration project. The ability of tank barges to deliver safely and efficiently vast quantities of petroleum derived fuels and lubricants is vital to large defense installations and to a city;s civil defenses and disaster preparedness. It would be difficult for any Congress to shut down a lock and dam operation in the face of a state Capitol and large military base playing the fuel card.

 The fuel card is not the only card tune in tomorrow for a description of yet another card to play.

No comments:

Post a Comment