Wanted: A viable all-water route from Asia to the U.S. Midwest
The following is an excerpt from a guest editorial on Supply Chain Quarterly, with research contributions by UMSL.
By: Masao Nishi
Member of the Supply Chain Management and Analytic Advisory Board since 2016 & Principal of M. Nishi Strategic Advisory
In the central United States, there is a magnificent stretch of waterway that is ready and available to be put to greater use: the Mississippi River between New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Louis, Missouri. This unique segment of open river has no locks or dams, and it is ice-free all year round.
This presents opportunities to move ocean containers from Asia to the U.S. Midwest entirely by water. From ports in Asia, containers could travel through the Panama Canal to the Port of New Orleans, and then via river vessels up the Mississippi to the St. Louis region for further distribution into the Midwest (Figure 1).
North of St. Louis, the river—like most other waterways in the U.S.—is full of locks and dams, which restricts the size of the tows and vessels and complicates transit time and the predictability of shipment deliveries. For these reasons, the New Orleans-to-St. Louis segment is ideal for getting container activity started on the waterways.
This route offers easy access to a large consumer market as well as an opportunity to lower costs, diversify and manage risk, and build a supply chain network that matches, and takes advantage of, the actual supply chain requirements of their products. It’s also greener than other modes of transportation. The New Orleans-to-St. Louis portion of the river is already a major traffic lane for bulk commodities carried by barge. Much of that volume consists of agricultural products; in fact, the St. Louis region is often referred to as the “Agricultural Coast” of America.
Yet shippers of containerized cargo are not taking advantage of this option. Given all its advantages, why are shippers reluctant to make use of this tremendously underutilized resource? And what will it take to make the New Orleans-to-St. Louis stretch of the river a more attractive and viable route for both shippers and carriers of containerized cargo?