Who's laughing now?

Who's laughing now?

They all laughed at ExpressBarge when it started a weekly container-on-barge shuttle from New York harbor to Albany a year ago. Why would anyone use a barge that takes 15 hours when a truck requires only three? For a while, it seemed the critics were right: During April 2003, ExpressBarge carried only four containers on the 150-mile voyage up the Hudson River. But ho, ho, ho, the slow barge may have the last laugh. Volume grew to 402 containers by March 2004, enough to consider running the service more frequently.

"We've been getting business we never dreamed of," said Joseph Cowhey, co-owner of Federal Marine Terminals, which operates the Port of Albany terminal that is the destination of the service. "So we'll be going to twice a week very soon."

The cargo moving on Express-Barge, part of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Port Inland Distribution Network, is made up of 60 percent imports and 40 percent exports. "We're handling a variety of cargo, and it's coming into good balance in both directions," Cowhey said. Wood pulp is shipped by rail from Vermont to Albany where it is banded and stuffed into containers for loading on the southbound barge for export to Asia. Logs from Vermont and New Hampshire are trucked to Albany, fumigated and then loaded into Asia-bound containers. General Electric is importing container loads of raw silicon from Europe and Brazil via ExpressBarge to its plant in Watervliet, 10 miles up the Hudson from Albany. The new business is enough to provide work two days a week for eight to 10 longshoremen.

ExpressBarge, operated by Columbia Coastal Transport, is the first phase of the Port Inland Distribution Network. The initiative aims to shift cargo coming in and out of New York harbor onto barge and short-rail services that will cut the number of trucks on the metropolitan region's traffic-choked roads and highways.

With the inland network, the port authority also plans barge services to Bridgeport, Conn., and Providence, R.I., and either barge or short-rail service to Camden, N.J. The port authority also is studying the idea of short-rail services from New York-New Jersey container terminals via CSX Transportation to Buffalo, N.Y., by mid-to-late 2005 and via Norfolk Southern Railway to Pittsburgh.

"Trucks are our competition," said Tom Hannan, the port authority's manager of port development. "But we think it's only a matter of time before the recent increases in the price of fuel and the federally mandated reduction in the hours truckers can drive will make the Albany barge service very competitive with trucking over that distance."

Hannan said ExpressBarge is picking up cargo from Canada. He said Canadian trucking companies are discovering that their drivers can drive five round trips a week from Montreal to Albany for a total of 1,000 miles, or 50 miles less than the mileage required for three round trips to New York.

ExpressBarge is being subsidized with a $3.3 million grant under the federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality program for its first two years of operation. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is contributing another $1.2 million that is being used to pay a fee of $25 for each full container that the service carries from the port. In addition, the New York Shipping Association has waived its assessment of $105 per container on each container transshipped via ExpressBarge. The port authority and the Port of Albany have agreed to seek additional funding for subsidies after the CMAQ grant expires in April 2005 and are in discussions with the Maritime Administration.

"It represents a saving to us because it reduces the dwell time to two to three days from the six to eight days for boxes carried by trucks," Hannan said. "This will result in a 20 percent increase in throughput without adding any additional acreage to our terminals."

With one barge feeder service under its belt, the port authority is contemplating its next service, which is targeted for Bridgeport by early next year. "We want to start daily services six days a week," said Joseph Riccio Jr., executive director of the Bridgeport Port Authority. "We'll be calling at each one of the New York-New Jersey terminals a couple of times a week to pick up boxes that are just sitting on the docks today because truck costs are getting way too expensive."

The state of Connecticut has committed $7 million to launch what would be a roll-on, roll-off service. As soon as Bridgeport receives the first chunk of $1.5 million, it will issue a request for a proposal from terminal operators to build a barge-loading ramp at a 15-acre container storage yard on the port's 48-acre property. A portion of the site is only about 100 yards from a northbound entrance ramp to Interstate 95. While the ramp is built, the port will lease a barge and retrofit it with a metal grid ramp that can be used to load and unload containers at terminals in New York harbor that are not yet equipped for ro-ro services.

As it is doing with the Albany barge service, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will contribute another $1.2 million to the project to pay $25 for each full container.

Riccio said the overnight barge service will use the ro-ro ramp to load 50 to 80 containers each trip aboard a medium-sized deck barge calling on New York area terminals and deliver them to Bridgeport by about 7 a.m. The return voyage would start three hours later. The port authority will subsidize the difference between the barge operator's cost and what it charges shippers. He said he expects the barge service to become profitable in the first quarter of the second year of operation.