A Lakefront Container View

A Lakefront Container View

Ports on the Great Lakes, which traditionally handle dry and liquid bulk, breakbulk and project cargo, are looking at a future with containers.

No, the U.S. and Canada don’t plan to build another set of locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway into Lake Erie to handle bigger container ships from Asia, as the Panama Canal is doing. But at least one big U.S. Great Lakes port, the Port of Toledo, Ohio, envisions a day when feeder ships shuttle containers to the U.S and Canadian Midwest transshipped from deep-water ports such as Halifax and the planned port at Melford in Nova Scotia — destination ports for the large post-Panamax ships that now carry cargo from Asia though the Suez Canal. After the new Panama Canal locks open in 2014, more such cargo is possible.

The Port of Toledo, at the western end of Lake Erie, expects delivery this month of two Liebherr mobile harbor cranes it purchased for $6.6 million, preparing for an onslaught of Lakes container cargo.

“They are like a Swiss Army knife,” said Paul Toth, president and CEO of the Toledo/Lucas County Port Authority, the landlord of the Port of Toledo. “You can put any attachment on them to handle bulk, breakbulk or containers.

“We decided that whatever equipment we were going to buy should be designed to handle container equipment if that opportunity does present itself in the future,” Toth said.

So far, Canadian ports and lakes carriers are taking the lead in development of short-sea container services among Canadian ports.

The Port of Hamilton, Ontario, at the western end of Lake Ontario, started the Sea3 service last July, linking the harbor with Montreal by a weekly 250-TEU tug-barge service operated by McKeil Marine.

Great Lakes Feeder Lines, an Ontario-based breakbulk and heavy-lift carrier, acquired two containerized/roll-on, roll-off vessels with cranes — the 221-TEU Dutch Runner, and the 270-TEU Arctic Sea. It is starting a short-sea service between Ontario ports and Montreal and Halifax.

The Port of Toledo leases land to operators of 17 terminals that handle mostly bulk and breakbulk cargo. Imports and exports are roughly in balance. Steel imports from northern Europe make up about 65 percent of the port’s total tonnage, with grain exports accounting for most of the rest. The port decided to buy new cranes after it lost some of its traditional import business, such as sugar from Brazil, because its old cranes weren’t efficient.

Toledo’s overseas cargo terminal is on 162 acres along the Erie waterfront. In 2008, the port acquired an adjacent 182 acres of land. “We had maxed out the port and are looking to get into new cargo that may not just be the movement or storage of cargo but may include value-added manufacturing,” Toth said.

Following the expansion, the port developed a 10-year strategic plan. “Getting new efficient cranes was our first priority,” Toth said. “They are for loading and unloading, bulk, project cargo, and certainly with an eye toward the possibility of containers that may move into the Great Lakes in the future.”

The port already handles some containers, but only for parts for the project cargo coming through Toledo. For example, eastern railroad CSX Transportation, which serves the port, is building a huge intermodal container freight terminal about 40 miles south of Toledo and expects to bring large cranes in through the port in 20 to 40 containerloads of crane parts. The new CSX intermodal ramp also may offer an opportunity for handling containers on a permanent basis. “There’s a big opportunity to work with CSX and see how we could work containers into their system as well,” Toth said.

“Our goal is to determine what niche market we can serve with containers,” Toth said. To that end, the port is meeting with officials from the Port of Halifax Authority and the proposed Melford International Terminal to discuss development of short-sea services between the ports. It is also in discussions with Great Lakes carriers that are considering converting their ships to carry containers as their traditional ore and coal business wanes.

Toth dismisses skeptics who say the seasonality of the St. Lawrence Seaway will block the growth of container traffic through Great Lakes ports. “The reality is that the three months of the year when the Seaway is shut down are really the slowest time of the year for movement of containers and containerized products,” he said. “We don’t see that as a big impediment.”

Contact Peter T. Leach at pleach@joc.com.