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River Commerce Group Supports Mississippi River Container-On-Barge Effort

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

A major river commerce group endorsed a plan Tuesday to increase container-on-barge traffic on the Mississippi River. 

The Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals Association supports shipping goods in containers on barges up and down the Mississippi River. That’s seen as an alternative to using trucks or rail. The group made the announcement at its annual conference in St. Louis.

The IRPTA is a trade association that promotes inland rivers as transportation systems. They're one of a number of groups and companies working to bring container-on-barge shipping back to the Mississippi River.

The effort is a major initiative of the Mississippi River Cities and Town Initiative, a group of river town mayors who advocate for the waterway’s economic and environmental well-being.

The organization's director Colin Wellenkamp says the effort could lead to infrastructure investments for river town ports – and more demand for jobs. Since barges can hold multiple containers full of goods, he also said the transportation method could serve an alternative to shipping goods by trucks. 

“You’re talking about a lot more containers moving a lot farther and a lot more economically, especially if they’re heavy,” Wellenkamp said. “Still to this day, the most efficient way to move something on planet Earth is on water.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a member of the group, was among the mayors at the conference. He said container-on-barge traffic could have many benefits – especially since St. Louis has one of the largest ports on the Mississippi River.

“It’s something that we don’t have a lot of now,” Slay said. “What we want to do is make sure we get it so we can be more efficient in moving cargo up and the down the river and do a better job of taking advantage of this river for its commercial aspects.”

Wellenkamp said that in the 2000s, it was more common to ship lumber on barges. But that came to halt when the foreclosure crisis caused homebuilding to plummet.

“You need stuff on both ends – trip up and trip down – to make it profitable,” Mallenkamp said. “So it’s been done. We know it can be done. We know it can be profitable. The Illinois Soybean Association is about to move their commodity on to containers on barges soon. They’ve looked at it and seen it as a competitive advantage for them.”

Slay also announced at the conference that Wellenkamp’s group had moved to a St. Louis office. Until recently, it was located in Washington, D.C.

Wellenkamp said its Washington location kept it close “to where the major legislative vehicles are being taken care of.” But moving to St. Louis places his group closer to people who feel the impact of the river on a daily basis.

“If you’re a mayor, what’s on the ground is what’s important to you,” Wellenkamp said. “That’s what’s important to the folks that use the river and depend on it for their jobs, depend on it for their recreation and value it as a resource. We’re going to be able to do a lot more and catch a lot more being here where the resource is.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.