Monday, December 18, 2017

River traffic trends

Something came up tonight that caused me to look at statistical data for the Ohio River and its tributaries. What I found was what I expected. Traffic on the river and its tributaries is down from what it was a decade ago. But few of you reading this need me to tell you that.

Here are the cargo numbers in millions of short tons in 2016 compared with the peak years of the past decade:

Ohio River: 184.21 vs. 230.84 in '07.
Allegheny: 0.65 vs. 2.71 in '07.
Big Sandy: 5.35 vs. 21.9 in '07.
Cumberland: 22.45 vs. 23.33 in '08.
Kanawha: 11.69 vs. 22.5 in '10.
Monongahela: 14.48 vs. 28.0 in '08.
Tennessee: 37.73 vs. 49.67 in '08.

The dropoff on the Ohio and most of its tributaries is attributable to one thing: coal. Just look at the number of coal-fired power plants that have been retired in the past decade or that are operating at reduced levels, and there is your answer.

It's not like how it was in the early part of this decade when towing companies were bringing out one new boat after another and scrapping or selling their old ones to South America..

There was also a need to check the largest "port" on the Ohio. That word is in quote marks for a reason that will be explained shortly. People here in Huntington like to say we have the largest inland port in the nation. That was true a few years ago, but no longer.

Here are the tons, in millions, handled by the Port of Huntington-Tristate and the Port of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky the past few years:

2013: 46.83 in Huntington, 11.68 in Cincinnati.
2014: 46.41 in Huntington, 49.93 in Cincinnati.
2015: 42.74 in Huntington, 44.97 in Cincinnati.

What happened? How did Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky increase its tonnage so much? It did the same thing Huntington did a few years earlier. It expanded its "port" boundaries, from 26 miles to 226.5 miles of the Ohio and Licking rivers.

It's an old game. In the late 1970s, Huntington was the largest inland port. But Pittsburgh and St. Louis enlarged their boundaries and took that title from Huntington. So a  few years ago Huntington enlarged its boundaries, too, and reclaimed the honor. It even became a Final Jeopardy answer one night. But Cincinnati decided to play the game, too, and Huntington's rank fell.

Huntington-Tristate could still give Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky a run had the coal market not gone downhill so far and so fast.

But the numbers are what they are, and the game is what it is.

P.S. The Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center may spell it "Tristate" the way the Cincinnati Enquirer does, but here in Huntington we spell it "Tri-State".