Agri harvests, lock work causes decline in Arkansas River tonnage

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 107 views 

Freight tonnage moved along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System is down 4% for the year, but a local port operator said it is not necessarily resulting in reduced business or cash flow for businesses using the river system to move goods.

Marty Shell, owner of Five Rivers Distribution in Van Buren and the operator of the Ports of Fort Smith and Van Buren, said part of the reason for the decline in freight movement along the river in an increase in transportation prices along the river.

"I can tell you that three months ago, you could take a barge of freight from Catoosa, Okla., to New Orleans for $9 per net ton," Shell said. "In 90 days, that same barge is selling for $40 to $45 a ton."

He said part of the reason for the increase in transport costs and a decline in local freight movements along the river channel is a good harvest in the northern plains, where goods are transported down the Mississippi River.

The key for ports along the northern section of the Mississippi is getting harvests and other goods moved out before the hard winter freeze sets in and barge traffic is shut down along the Mississippi. With the solid harvest, more barges have been taken off the Arkansas River and other rivers across the nation to meet demand along the upper Mississippi, Shell said.

"That has driven barge (usage) through the roof, along with rail," he said, noting that the two forms of transportation are staying busy.

With the coming freeze in the north, Shell said it was vital to get the freight moved out of the north because once the river is shut down, barges could be in place on the river for months on end. He said when that happens, it again impacts areas like Arkansas and Oklahoma that need the barges to move product to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans.

In addition to the supply and demand issue for barges, Shell also noted that locks 14 and 17 in Oklahoma were down for two weeks during the last quarter, which meant no barges were moving into or coming out of the state and negatively affecting overall tonnage for the year.

To better understand how that can drag down the year's total tonnage, Shell noted that between 300,000 and 350,000 tons of product moves up and down the Arkansas River's navigation system each week.

"That would be equivalent to 15,217 tractor trailers. That's the capacity we're taking off the roads."

But with Oklahoma closed to movements for two weeks, coupled with the barge supply and demand situation along the upper Mississippi, Shell said the numbers could remain down for some if not all of the last part of the year.

Industries down the most in terms of tonnage moved along the river include petrol products (down 45%), other chemicals (down 21%), wheat (down 19%), food/farm products (down 27%) and manufactured equipment (down 82%).

Industries posting positive tonnage rates include iron and steel (up 10%), chemical fertilizer (up 6%), sand/gravel and rock (up 12%), minerals and building supplies (up 13%) and soy beans (up 59%).

In terms of inbound movements (freight arriving from the Mississippi River), total tonnage is up 12% to 3.551 million tons, with internal freight movements up 7% to 1.963 million tons.

It is the outbound tonnage dragging down totals, though, with freight movements to the Mississippi River down 20% to only 3.129 tons compared to the same nine months of last year (January through September).

Shell reiterated that in spite of the drop in freight, local businesses are not necessarily hurting thanks to the rise in transport costs in the last three months.

"Tonnage wise, it might be down. But monetarily, we are staying busy and we have no complaints. We've been happy with 2014."