The Inland, Dry Port Trend

The latest trend in transportation, the latest competitive tool, is a port not on the coast and not on the water either. No water — an inland port … a dry port.

Huh?

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines “port” as “a harbor town or city where ships may take on or discharge cargo.” OK, and “harbor” (as in “harbor town” above) is defined as “a part of a body of water protected and deep enough to furnish anchorage, especially, one with port facilities.”

There are certainly ports inland from the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf or “Great Lakes” coasts. Memphis is a port. So is Pittsburgh. For that matter, Baltimore is a bit of a distance from the coast. So are New Orleans, Tampa and Richmond, Va.

But at least they are on the water.

The Virginia Port Authority built one of the first U.S. inland ports 25 years ago in Front Royal, Va., some 200 miles northwest of the Port of Hampton Roads. The concept was to increase the reach of the port deeper into its own hinterland and closer to that of its primary competitor in the 1980s, the Port of Baltimore. A shuttle train service directly to Hampton Roads, just long enough to hit the 200-mile sweet spot needed to give rail an advantage over trucking, completed the concept; circa 1988.

Now 25 years later, South Carolina has a planned inland port in Greer, S.C., and Georgia plans an inland port in Cordele — far enough to hit that rail sweet spot from their respective ports.

And there are murmurs of others — one serving Jacksonville, probably by truck; one proposed by Port Canaveral, by barge; one proposed in South Florida, rail-served but closer than the rail economics would normally dictate, more akin to a distribution center with express service to get containers off the dock.

Let’s be purists and define “inland port” to fit the Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia models — rail service with rail economics to protect and expand the port’s hinterland of customers. Let’s call the others “inland terminals” to cover the different business models envisioned. (North Carolina has inland terminals in Charlotte and Greensboro, both served by truck.)

Inland ports are simply more tools for port toolboxes, just like bigger, faster cranes, on-dock/near-dock rail and deeper water, as the fight for cargo, nearby and often not-so-nearby, intensifies.

What about future inland ports? Look for regions with relatively large consuming or producing populations, centrally located for distribution activities, currently served almost exclusively by truck, within the same state as a major port. (Hagerstown, Md., would have been a great location for the Virginia Inland Port, but that is another story.)

One such region, coveted by not one port but several within the same state, is Orlando and sprawling Central Florida, which has the potential as an inland port, a dry port. But let’s leave the details a mystery for now. This is an industry that is changing daily.

Now, have you ever heard of a dry canal?

J. Stanley “Stan” Payne has held senior leadership roles at the Virginia Port Authority and the Canaveral Port Authority during periods of dramatic transformation and great growth, but also has spent a significant part of his career in the private sector unrelated to transportation. He is the author of “The Right of a Port to Cargo in the Age of Containerization: Going, Going … Not Quite Gone” in the Transportation Law Journal, University of Denver School of Law. Contact him at stanpayne@cfl.rr.com.

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