By the Numbers

St. Louis: Ranked the United States’ Most Efficient Inland Port

The St. Louis region remains home to the nation’s most efficient inland port. Data shows the region’s port system also is well diversified and plays a critical role in U.S. agriculture.

Credit: St. Louis Regional Freightway
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Ports in the St. Louis metropolitan area collectively remained the most efficient inland port district in the United States, according to latest data from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

An independent analysis of Corps data by S&P Global Commodity Insights revealed that, in 2021 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), the St. Louis region’s barge industry handled 427,000 tons per mile, while the average tons per mile across the United States’ other seven inland port districts was 104,014. Essentially, the St. Louis Metro Ports moved more than four times the average tons per mile, as compared to the other inland port districts.

Tons per mile moved by inland ports in 2020 and 2021 Credit: St. Louis Regional Freightway

“The St. Louis harbor continues to be the most concentrated location on the Inland Waterway for export grain,” said David Jump, CEO of American Milling, LP. “Transportation efficiencies, facilities, and geography combine to result in lower costs for shippers. This results in the St. Louis region’s position as a global freight hub.”

St. Louis Metro Ports include the following individual ports, with the first three handling more than 80% of the total tonnage moved in 2021: America’s Central Port (Illinois), Southwest Regional Port District (Illinois), St. Louis City Port Authority (Missouri), St. Louis County Port Authority (Missouri) and Jefferson County Port Authority (Missouri).

Collectively serving 70 miles along the Mississippi River, these five ports handled nearly 30 million tons of cargo in 2021, on par with the prior year’s 30.5 million tons. With that tonnage total, the St. Louis Metro Port system also remains one of the highest tonnage inland ports nationwide, ranking number four.

Total Tonnage, St. Louis Metro Ports Credit: St. Louis Regional Freightway

While St. Louis Metro Ports did not undergo any boundary changes in the past 10 years, the S&P Global Commodity Insights report calls attention to some major inland ports that were reclassified by the USACE, impacting their latest statistics. The data reveals that new ports breaking into the top rankings were the result of a recent reclassification of two* port districts (Southern Indiana District and the Mid-Ohio Valley District). These reclassifications led to changes in the statistical boundaries of these ports and subsequently larger reported tonnage for these districts by covering statistical “gap areas” (in the case of Mid-Ohio) and aggregating ports that were previously reported separately (in the case of the Southern Indiana District).

Even though the reclassification of these new districts catapulted the Mid-Ohio Valley Port District into the top spot for total tonnage, with 36.5 million tons of cargo moved in 2021, this port area – now encompassing approximately 217 total water miles of the Ohio River –moved 168,000 tons per river mile, 60% fewer tons per river mile than the St. Louis Port system. Rounding out the top five inland ports for tonnage are the Ports of Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky, encompassing approximately 225 miles (#2 with total tonnage of 36 million), Huntington-Tristate (Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia), encompassing approximately 199 miles (#3 with total tonnage just over 31 million) and the newly reclassified Southern Indiana Port District, encompassing approximately 356 miles (#5 with total tonnage just over 24 million). Due to their larger size, the tons moved per river mile at each of these ports also ranks well below the St. Louis Metro Ports.

Though not part of St. Louis Metro Ports by the definition of the USACE, the Kaskaskia Regional Port District is an additional port in the bi-state St. Louis region that also plays an important role in moving freight on the inland waterways. It has consistently handled over five million tons of cargo annually since 2017.

Credit: St. Louis Regional Freightway

Agriculture industry leader

Currently, 50% of U.S. crops and livestock are produced within a 500-mile radius of the St. Louis region, including approximately 80% of corn and soybean acreage. From 2017 through 2021, St. Louis Metro Ports handled 25% of all corn and 28% of all soybean shipments through seven key inland ports in the Midwest, the S&P Global Commodity Insights report reveals.

“These are significant volumes supported by more than 200 barge handling terminals in the port district,” said Mary Lamie, Executive Vice President of Multimodal Enterprises for Bi-State Development and head of the St. Louis Regional Freightway, a regional freight district that works to enhance and optimize the region’s freight network and strengthen modal flexibility, while raising awareness about the global connectivity the St. Louis region offers. She added that a 15 mile stretch of St. Louis’ port system, known as the Ag Coast of America, is home to 16 barge-transfer facilities that, at total capacity, can handle more than 150 barges a day – the highest level of capacity anywhere along the Mississippi River.

“Because the St. Louis Metro Ports lie in a strategically important position in the Midwest and on the Mississippi River and feature exceptional multimodal capabilities, they are a leader in the movement of agricultural products,” Lamie said. “Given this strategic location providing the northernmost ice-free and lock-free access on the Mississippi River, as well as the proximity to crop and livestock production areas, we believe the report indicates the importance of St. Louis Metro Ports in the movement of agricultural products is likely to endure.”

Credit: St. Louis Regional Freightway

Diversified system

Each year from 2019 to 2021, St. Louis Metro Ports were one of the two leading inland ports that move agricultural products. Though Illinois Waterway Ports move a higher volume of agricultural product, St. Louis Metro Ports are more diversified. Given its location in the Corn Belt, corn comprised nearly 60% of Illinois Waterway Ports agricultural tonnage in 2021. In contrast, corn comprised 44% of St. Louis Metro Ports agricultural tonnage in 2021, and its wheat tonnage is 25 times higher than Illinois Ports. This diversity of agricultural products handled by St. Louis Metro ports lessens the risks of negative supply chain shocks coming from any one commodity, for example, an overdependence on corn, making the ports more resilient.

In addition to their importance to agriculture, handling a total of 14.45 million tons in inbound and outbound agriculture shipments in 2021, St. Louis Metro Ports handle large volumes of other diverse products. In 2021, St. Louis Metro Ports moved more than one million tons each of 10 different products, including agricultural products, sand and gravel, crude petroleum, cement and concrete, petroleum coke, asphalt, tar and pitch, and coal and lignite. With 15 million tons of non-agriculture products moving through the region’s ports, the system’s resiliency is further enhanced.

Movement of top products through St. Louis Metro Ports 2021 Credit: St. Louis Regional Freightway

“Continuing public and private investments in the St. Louis region’s ports and river terminals, and the associated freight network that serves them, have created a very competitive shipper and carrier market featuring unmatched efficiencies and lower costs,” Lamie said. “We are committed to working with the public and private sector to continue to advance the region’s highest priority projects, including improving at-grade rail crossings and increasing efficiency of freight rail interconnectivity with the region’s Class I railroads, as that is key to supporting the barge industry and is critical for maintaining global competitiveness.”

*The Northern Indiana District also was reclassified by the USACE, but is classified as a Great Lakes port, not an inland port. The Northern Indiana District is deeper draft (up to 33 feet) and serves self-propelled ocean-going vessels (allowing for heavier loadings) and carrying cargo being exported to international markets.

March 2024
RW Fernstrum