Motorists who have complained about the increase in the number of 18-wheel trucks on Mississippi’s roadways should be prepared for even more big rigs in the future. The number of trucks on state highways has doubled in the past 10 years, and is expected to double again in the next 10 years.
The highway system alone can’t be expanded fast enough to meet the growing demand for transport of goods, says Marlin Collier, director of the Office of Intermodal Planning for the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“Our projections for the Latin American trade transportation study show that trade with South America and Mexico will grow twice as fast as the rest of world trade over the next 20 to 30 years,” Collier said. “And it is going to hit the Southeast first because 80% of all the freight coming out of Latin America comes into the Southeast. A lot of that trade is going across Interstate 10 and then up Interstate 59 in Mississippi. Those two corridors are so heavy with cross border freight that intermodalism in Mississippi is becoming critical.”
Collier said it isn’t possible to build enough extra lanes on the interstates to accommodate the anticipated growth. Projections show that to meet the increased freight demand with highways alone would require another half mile of interstate highway for every mile that currently exists.
“We don’t have the resources to add another 50% of lane miles to the interstates,” Collier said.
If the highways can’t accommodate the freight and other options don’t exist, the state’s economy could be harmed. And since highways can’t be expanded fast enough, it is important to expand intermodal capacities so much of the freight can be moved first by rail and barge before being offloaded in intermodal containers that can be transferred to 18-wheel trucks for final delivery.
Vision 21 is the name of the state’s plan to improve the highway transportation system. But Collier said MDOT is also strongly in support of intermodalism, helping the railroads and the barge industries and the capacity to transfer containers between the different modes of transportation.
“We are diverting some national transportation funds to build better intermodal connectors,” Collier said. “We are also pushing hard at the national and state level to try to achieve funding for those publicly owned modal facilities like Port of Gulfport, and do whatever we can do with loan guarantees for railroads to improve their systems.”
While it will be expensive to do improvement such as purchasing the rail line between Gulfport and Hattiesburg and upgrading it to a welded track capable of carrying heavier rail loads, MDOT sees that as a critical part of meeting the transportation needs of the state.
“It isn’t a matter of modal competition,” Collier said. “If you look at the trade projections there is so much growth out there we are going to have to use all the modes to continue the economic growth that we all want to enjoy. Transportation is a mean other than an end. But it is the means to the economic health of the country.”
Wayne Parrish, director of the Ports and Waterways Division of MDOT, said currently there aren’t sufficient state and federal funding sources for improving transportation modes other than highways.
“But we have been investing in the state side on the connector program in improving highway connections,” Parrish said. “And the ports have been doing what they can. In the Northeast on the Tennessee-Tombigbee they have been able to tap into some funding sources to make some improvements.”
Parrish said Mississippi is ahead of a lot of other states in the transition from being just a state highway department to a state department of transportation. One example is MDOT’s assessment of the state’s 16 ports done to demonstrate to the Legislature and the public the economic value of those ports. The MDOT report also identified infrastructure improvements needed at the ports to continue to serve the existing customer base.
“Also, we wanted to look ahead using Latin American trade projections and see what we needed to do to capitalize on the economic benefits transportation brings,” Parrish said.
Mississippi has high capacity for water transportation, the most economical way to move bulk cargo.
“As the highways reach capacity, I think we’re looking toward a modal shift,” Parrish said. “Barges are going to be a big player. In 2001 the legislature established the intermodal capital fund for improvements of modes other than highways. Unfortunately, with the economy in a slump and budget problems we haven’t seen money placed into that fund yet. But the structure is there.”
Don Waldon, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Authority in Columbus, says while the lack of funding may be understandable, it is discouraging.
“Mississippi will wind up, as always, competing with the neighboring states along the Coast, and all of those states already have existing programs to assist public ports,” Waldon said. “But the state is having a tough time funding current programs, much less any new programs. It isn’t because of lack of interest or opposition. I think every vote I can recall ever taken regarding water transportation done by the state Legislature has always had overwhelming support. It isn’t that they don’t have an interest. Hopefully, the economy will improve to where they will have the revenues to take care of some of those needs.”
In the previous century water commerce was dominant in Mississippi, and in the future it is expected to regain some of its former importance.
Jim Jeffords, chief of navigation for the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that moving cargo by barge results in an average savings of $10 per ton over any other type of shipping. That results in annual savings of about $7 billion in the U.S. compared to moving the goods by rail and highway.
“Not only is it more competitive, it is also a national security issue for our country,” Jeffords said. “It keeps a channel open that moves military equipment out faster. Military transport is a big use of our waterways.”
More than half of America’s grain exports go through the ports of the lower Mississippi.
“We have this massive tonnage with total waterborne commerce because it is so efficient to move grain and other commodities by barge,” said John Hall, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans district. “One hopper barge carries 1,500 tons, and it isn’t uncommon to have 40 barges in line haul tows. By comparison a giant rail car would hold about 100 tons, and with most of them their cargo is less than that.”
Tonnage on the Mississippi River was down in 2001, which has been attributed to a decline in the economy.
“Bulk tonnage tends to go up and down,” Hall said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.