If the restoration of the US infrastructure moves forward, the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway system stakeholders could be a major beneficiary.

In Cleveland, a Fednav vessel that is part of the regular westbound FALLine service from Northern Europe carrying a mix of steel products, project and breakbulk cargo.
In Cleveland, a Fednav vessel that is part of the regular westbound FALLine service from Northern Europe carrying a mix of steel products, project and breakbulk cargo.

While iron ore and grain remain core cargoes of the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway System, stakeholders in the region’s maritime industry are optimistic that the current political and economic conditions favor continued growth in the breakbulk and project sectors.
Indeed, high up on the radar screen, various ports, carriers and terminal operators on the North American waterway are attempting to weigh the potential benefits of a trillion-dollar infrastructure agenda first announced by President Donald Trump when he campaigned on a pledge to restore steel, coal and manufacturing jobs in America’s ‘Rust Belt’ states. No details on content or funding were, however, outlined in Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28.

Newly-installed as president of the Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce, with membership on both sides of the Canada-US border, Bruce Burrows recently suggested that if Trump delivers on a massive infrastructure package, “there could be a whole lot more cargo being shipped on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and on our coasts to deliver these projects.”

President of Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce, Bruce Burrows
President of Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce, Bruce Burrows

“Imagine the shipments of steel-making materials alone that would be needed,” he told a marine industry gathering in Toronto. “Investments in icebreaking resources, waterways, locks and portside infrastructure, and more efficient delivery of marine navigational services would unleash the full sustainable potential of shipping.” At the same time as a Trump Watch, there is also in fact a relevant Trudeau Watch in progress. The Canadian federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau elected in 2015 is expected to soon outline details of an ambitious national infrastructure program. Without going into specifics, a federal Transportation 2030 blueprint last fall offered this undertaking: “Build world-leading marine corridors that are competitive, safe and environmentally sustainable and enhance northern transportation infrastructure.”

This suggests funding support for additional capacity at key ports, strengthening the competitiveness of the St. Lawrence Seaway through technological advances, and developing projects in the Canadian Arctic that will require shipments from eastern Canadian gateways of breakbulk and machinery.

Canadian Seaway Official Bullish on Breakbulk

Meanwhile, Bruce Hodgson, the executive spearheading market development at Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), notes that project cargo volumes are growing every year as shippers better understand the benefits and efficiencies of using what is sometimes referred to as the HWY H20 inland corridor.

In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, Hodgson indicated that general cargo on the Seaway “fared reasonably well” in 2016 – matching the 2015 results. “In particular, shipments of breakbulk cargoes (including wind turbine components and machinery) were strong, rising to 495,000 metric tons from the previous year’s 422,000 tons. That’s a 17% increase.”

“The markets served are not limited to the heartland as the system provides seamless connectivity to markets in Western Canada and in the Western US,” he points out. “This is particularly beneficial for project cargoes that are over-dimensional as other gateways can be restricted in the size of cargoes they can handle.”

“We serve a broad range of international markets for project cargo; Europe, South America and the Far East,” says Hodgson.

And despite the recent downturn in the oil and gas sectors, he considers the outlook for breakbulk and project cargoes is for increased traffic in the years ahead.

“The oil and gas industries are forecast to improve over the next 2 years with new projects coming on stream,” Hodgson says, adding: “The outlook for the wind energy segment is also positive with ongoing projects in both Canada and the US.”

Several years ago, the Canadian Seaway agency commissioned a consultant study to compare the waterway’s competitiveness with other gateways. The study concluded that system was very competitive for the transportation of project cargoes and urged the SLSMC to act as a catalyst to bring all stakeholders together to match cargo with vessels and ports.

As it is fully engaged in promoting the system for project cargoes, Hodgson underlines that “one of the advantages for carriers calling the system is the ongoing availability of export cargoes.”

Aerial view of the Port of Thunder Bay Keefer Terminal that is strongly increasing business in wind energy components. (Photo credit: Thunder Bay Port Authority)
Aerial view of the Port of Thunder Bay Keefer Terminal that is strongly increasing business in wind energy components. (Photo credit: Thunder Bay Port Authority)

For a number of ocean carriers like Fednav, Spliethoff on regular services and various multi-purpose operators, it’s a question of steel or project cargo in and grain out. In this regard, Tim Heney, president and CEO of the Thunder Bay Authority, states categorically: “Backhaul is the key to success of project cargo.”

Indeed, project cargo, led by wind farm components, has been quite a success story at the Ontario port on the tip of Lake Superior in the past few years.

“In 2016, we had a record year in project cargo, with volume of 31,000 metric tons versus 20,000 metric tons in 2015,” Heney says.

Keefer Terminal at Thunder Bay in 2016 handled fourteen shipments – including electrical transformers from the United Kingdom for a hydropower project in northern Manitoba, wind turbine components, mining equipment for a gold mine, and an OSB (oriented strand board) plant. The port anticipates positive results in 2017, with additional shipments of electrical transformers confirmed starting this spring.

At the Port of Oshawa on Lake Ontario, a new rail spur is allowing the port to break into the niche project cargo market by handling cargo of all shapes and sizes, including a mammoth motor compressor which arrived from a company in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes. Too big to move by road, the 100 metric ton compressor was easily accommodated by the rail spur’s oversized dimensional section. Over the past year, the port of Oshawa has assisted several companies in moving cargo including generators and plastic tanks destined for Newfoundland.

Steel products cargo has risen sharply at Port of Hamilton.
Steel products cargo has risen sharply at Port of Hamilton.

For its part, the Port of Hamilton, Canada’s largest on the Great Lakes, has been benefitting from robust activity in project cargo shipments, including power plant components, industrial boilers, construction machinery and vehicles, steel cables and pipes. Ian Hamilton, president of the Hamilton Port Authority, stresses that the port “serves as a strategic location for the import and export of machinery and components for Ontario’s manufacturing and energy sectors. “We have recently seen several shipments of windmill blades and heavy equipment, for example. More than 52,000 m3 of project cargo transited the port in 2016, exceeding the five-year average by 6.7%. “Imports of finished steel also reached their highest volume in the past five years, with more than half a million tons transiting the port in 2016.”

Robust Shipments at US Great Lakes Ports

US Great Lakes ports, including Duluth-Superior, Indiana-Burns Harbor, Cleveland and Toledo reported handling a healthy number of project/breakbulk shipments in 2016. Several recorded increases in shipments of aluminum, mainly from Quebec smelters, for use in automobile manufacturing.

Rick Heimann, port director of the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, notes that the port’s ability to handle global shipments creates advantages for moving large dimensional shipments by water into the heart of the Midwest. Cargoes handled during a busy 2016 included several 200-ft molds for wind turbine blades and two 10-ton freezers for an Indiana food processor. In total, shipments of dimensional cargoes rose by 25%. In a major expansion announced last year approaching completion, Minnesota-based Rainer Steel has invested $8 million in additional 100,000 square feet to load and unload steel shipments at Indiana-Burns Harbor.

At the Port of Cleveland, a power station project helped to set two milestones last fall for the port and FMT Cleveland. One involved the heaviest lift handled at the terminal, a Siemens generator manufactured in Europe and weighing 311 metric tons. There was also the first ever roll-off transfer of project cargo from barge to dock at the port.

A natural gas-fired power plant being built in Lordstown, Ohio will be the second largest in the world.