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River Economic Competitiveness

Top Ohio River Ranking for Economic Growth

In 2021, Site Selection Magazine ranked the Cincinnati region the number one metropolitan area for growth and investment along the Ohio River. The magazine wrote: “With more than three billion dollars in corporate facility investments, and more than 10,600 jobs associated with those projects over an 18-month period, the Greater Cincinnati region tops the charts in this year’s survey of the Ohio River Corridor.” The OKI region far surpassed other Ohio River metro areas, including Louisville, Evansville and Pittsburgh.

Port Ranking Based on Tonnage

The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) publishes an annual ranking of every designated coastal and inland waterway port based on total yearly freight tonnage. The combined activity of all terminals in the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (Ports) makes it the nineteenth busiest “port” in the U.S. overall. The ranking makes it the second busiest U.S. inland port, behind the newly designated Mid-Ohio Valley Port, based on total annual tonnage. Declining tonnage has been driven partially by the closure of coal-fired power plants and a national shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy.

River Tonnage and Value

According to data reported by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in 2017, about 24.3 million tons of waterborne cargo was transported on the OKI region’s inland waterways, a value of more than $3.8 billion. This represents 14.1 percent of the total tonnage moved by all modes, but only 1.5 percent of the total freight value. Barges are ideal for hauling bulk commodities and moving over-size equipment, which are heavy, but not expensive cargo. At 92.4 percent of the total river tonnage and 80.6 percent of the total river value, most of the region’s barge freight is domestic. (Source: Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). (2017). Freight Analysis Framework Version 5.2 (FAF 5.2) Regional Database for 2017. [Data set].)

FHWA data for waterborne freight differs from that reported by the USACE due to different statistical boundaries used for reporting. Whereas the USACE reports on the entire Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, FHWA uses metropolitan statistical areas.

For a more detailed look at truck tonnage and value, visit the OKI Commodity Flow Report.

Commodities Carried on the River

Barges deliver a variety of commodities critical to households and businesses in the Tristate. Although the transport of coal has dramatically declined over the past decade, it remains one of the top commodities for barge tonnage through the Markland and Meldahl locks.

The Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky is a federally designated “Petroleum Port.” This is based on its handling of 200,000 or more short tons per year in total volume of petroleum products. Commodities used to serve the energy industry sector comprise almost 72 percent of the total tonnage transported by barge in the OKI region. (Source: Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). (2017). Freight Analysis Framework Version 5.2 (FAF 5.2) Regional Database for 2017. [Data set].)

There are seven operable petroleum product terminals located on the Ohio River and one on the Licking River. These terminals have a bulk shell storage capacity of 50,000 barrels or more, and/or the ability to receive volumes from tanker truck, barge or pipeline. The main function of petroleum product terminals is to provide temporary storage for refined products, allowing for eventual redistribution to smaller bulk plants closer to end users and to directly supply large commercial accounts. It is mandatory for all operators of bulk terminals to provide terminal data reports, which is in accordance with Section 13(b) of the Federal Energy Administration Act of 1974. The data reported is not available to the public. However, based on the region’s pipeline network, it is likely that many serve as key pipeline storage and transfer stations for the movement of petroleum to or from truck and barge.

Potential Divertible Commodities to River Transport

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) requires all states to have a statewide freight plan to be eligible for federal funding for critical surface transportation improvements. With the declining trend in river freight tonnage and the desire to both support continued economic growth and address road and rail congestion, potential divertible commodities were examined within the development of Kentucky’s most recent state freight plan. Findings revealed that the top commodities with the greatest modal diversion potential from roads and rail to river were iron and steel. (Source: Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC). Kentucky Riverports, Highway & Rail Freight Study, Technical Memorandum 2: Summary of Freight Summit #1 (Kentucky Summit on the Economic Role of Freight Modes). (December 2020).)

In January 2020, two years prior to KYTC’s diversion findings, OKI served as the public sponsor of an American Marine Highway (AMH) Project Designation through the USDOT’s Maritime Administration (MARAD). To date, three AMH grants have been awarded under OKI’s AMH Project Designation. These AMH grants total more than $4.2 million for the construction of marine terminal infrastructure improvements that support the diversion of steel coils, steel plate and metal scrap supplies from trucks on our regional roadways to short haul barge trips on the Ohio River. OKI’s private partners, Nucor Brandenburg Steel Plan, Nucor Gallatin Steel Plant and the Port of Jeffersonville, Indiana, met the local matches necessary to leverage these new federal funds without the need for any local public investments.


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