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River Mobility & Reliability

River Mobility & Reliability Overview

Among all freight modes, river transport requires the longest travel time and provides the least flexibility for shippers. These conditions dictate the types of products best suited for river transport, which include bulk dry and liquid commodities that are not time-sensitive for their delivery and can withstand fluctuating climate conditions with minimal handling and care.

Two arrows are used to show where each of the freight modes perform in terms of timing and flexibility and fuel efficiency. Runway (plane) have high or fast shipping time and flexibility with low fuel efficiency. Road (truck) has slightly greater travel time and less flexibility and more fuel efficiency than planes. Rail falls about midway in terms of time, flexibility, and fuel efficiency. River (barge) has lower or longer shipping time and less flexibility while having the highest fuel efficiency.

Freight Mode Shipping Attributes
Source: The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). (2022).

Volume: Tonnage

One way to measure river freight volume is by examining total tonnage, as reported by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (Ports). The combined 2020 activity of all terminals in the Ports makes it the 22nd busiest port in the U.S. overall and second busiest inland port based on total annual tonnage. Terminals in the Ports handle coal, minerals, fuel, metals, grains, and chemicals. Since the Ports’ re-designation in 2015, total tonnage has been decreasing at a steady pace. Declining tonnage has been driven partially by the closure of coal-fired power plants and a subsequent decrease in coal demand, a phenomenon shared with other ports across the nation.

In 2017, 92 percent of all river freight tonnage was domestic with 84 percent traveling inbound into the Ports for delivery to Ohio, Kentucky, and other Midwest customers.

Volume: Loaded and Empty Barges

Another way to measure river freight volume is by examining USACE’s data for the number of loaded and empty barges traveling through a lock network. The findings show that, overall, the total number of loaded barges moving through Markland and Meldahl locks is about double that of empty ones. Reflecting the drop in the Port’s annual tonnage, the data shows that both locks have experienced robust declines in the number of loaded barges over the past decade. While the total number of empty barges at Meldahl has also decreased during this same period, it has done so at a much slower pace than loaded barges. The trend line for empty barges using Markland’s locks has been flat from2009 to 2019.


Barge Travel Time

As more river data has become available, OKI determined that the best, most cost-effective method of calculating an average travel time for barge traffic was to apply USACE lock data for the Markland and Meldahl facilities, which form the gateways into and out of the OKI region. The stretch of the Ohio River between the two locks and dam structures is called the Markland Pool. The OKI region comprises the majority of the Markland Pool territory. In 2016, OKI calculated a mean travel time upstream at 31.13 hours and a mean travel time downstream at 18.91 hours for the Markland Pool. This was based on filtered January 2016 data when a tug traversed the Markland and Meldahl locks in the same direction with the same number of barges.


Vessel with four story high tower churning water behind boats filled with piles of black product. Downtown Cincinnati buildings and Roebling Bridge in the background.

Towboat Moving Coal Barges Upriver
Source: The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). (2014).

River Capacity

Once again using USACE lock data, OKI conducted an analysis to measure the number of tugs using the Markland Pool annually. The goal: to determine the current over- or underutilization value of the river. Findings show that the Ohio River is experiencing a decline in utilization in recent years. As a greater number of tugs have used the river in the past, the river’s available capacity is not being used to its greatest potential. This finding is noteworthy as other freight modes are more constrained and/or operating beyond their physical and operational capacities providing an opportunity to potentially shift some freight off trucks, trains or pipeline and onto barges.


Barge Capacity

National statistics show a typical 15-barge tow can carry the same dry cargo capacity as two-unit trains (six locomotives and 216 rail cars) or 1050 large semi, tractor trailer trucks. This translates into one barge equaling the same dry cargo capacity as 16 rail cars or 70 large semi, tractor trailer trucks. To help the reader visualize the impact of this carrying capacity, one barge loaded with wheat would provide about 2.5 million loaves of bread.

In terms of liquid cargo capacity, one barge can carry the same as 46 rail cars or 144 large semi, tractor trailer trucks. Once again to translate the magnitude of this freight into something we all can relate to, a single tank barge filled with gasoline can fuel about 2,500 cars for a whole year. (Source: Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Center for Ports and Waterways entitled “A Modal Comparison of Domestic Freight Transportation Effects on the General Public: 2001-2019.” (January 2022).)


Barge Chokepoints

The only chokepoints that exist for river freight are found at locks and dams. Depending on the size of the flotilla or number of barges being towed, and dimensions of the lock’s chambers, barges may need to be separated into several trips through the lock. Each of these trips is called a cut. To put this into perspective, one 15-barge tow or flotilla is about a quarter mile in length. Multiple cuts made by multiple flotillas through a single lock can considerably increase a barge’s travel time.


White boat and red-covered rectangles float on muddy water in a narrow, concrete channel.

Marathon Petroleum Barge Tow Through Meldahl Lock
Source: Marathon Petroleum Company. (2022).

For the past decade, the average individual processing time for both the Markland and Meldahl locks has been just under an hour. Between 2009 and 2019, Markland’s processing time has improved by one to two minutes. Meldahl’s time has increased from about 51 minutes to an hour. The average processing time is the calculated average time spent traversing the lock from the first cut’s start of lockage time to the last cut’s end of lockage time.

Average delay is the time in minutes spent in queue awaiting lockage or the difference between the first start of lock and arrival time. Over the past decade, the delay trend for Markland has been on an overall declining trajectory with 45 percent of all vessels delayed in 2009 and 49 percent in 2019. Vessel delay at Meldahl has also been worsening, although at a slower pace than Markland. Meldahl’s delay has gone from 33 percent in 2009 to 38 percent of all vessels in 2019, where the minimum fill time for the main lock is nine minutes and the auxiliary lock is four-and-half minutes. Translating this information into a measurement of total delay time results in a 2019 average delay to tows of more than 38 minutes at Meldahl and nearly 70 minutes at Markland.

Barge Fleeting Accessibility

With 35 barge fleeting areas and two local service providers in the OKI region, the 58 commercial river terminals have access to timely direct barge deliveries and pick-ups. One company, Cincinnati Bulk Terminals, LLC, located in the heart of Cincinnati, shared with OKI that in their 100+ year history the terminal has never had customer delays, thanks to the proximity and number of fleeting locations in the area.


Multimodal Accessibility

All 104 docks in the OKI region have roadway connections for truck access. Thirty-two percent of the docks have access to rail. Several river terminals provide liquid storage. The exact number of terminals with pipeline access is difficult to know, due to the security measures of the pipeline industry and the availability of public information. Twelve docks have complete multi-modal access to roads, rail and pipeline. All 12 are in Hamilton County along the West River Road corridor.

Dock Characteristics

The design characteristics of docks across the OKI region offer shippers the ability to transport a range of products. Half of them are equipped with cranes and or conveyors to transport bulk freight commodities, such as coal and pig iron. Eighteen percent of the docks are equipped to move liquid products, such as petroleum and liquid fertilizers.

Once products are off-loaded from a barge, docks provide temporary or long-term storage. This depends on the timing of shipments to customers and the need to protect freight from bad weather. Docks offer a range of storage options. Twenty one percent have tanks and 30 percent offer covered storage. Since most products transported can withstand rain, wind, or other conditions, 37 percent of docks simply store shipments on paved or gravel lay-down areas that are open to the elements.

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