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Future River Mobility & Reliabilty


It is widely understood by those who know the region’s waterway cargo system that it has excess capacity. The reliability of the system depends on many factors that are beyond the control of operators. Factors include water levels, lock maintenance, and severe weather affecting terminal facilities.

The reliability of the system is critical, particularly during agricultural harvest when perishable grains are carried by barge for domestic and international transport. The industry has refined its operations during this time of high volumes over decades. It has done so through coordination with brokers and third-party logistics providers (3PLs) that specialize in agricultural products. It is expected that these efficiencies will continue to be improved as new distribution channels are opened.

Future Volume and Commodity Forecasts

Overall tonnage is expected to decrease 8% between 2020 and 2050 along OKI waterways, according to the Freight Analysis Framework (FAF) cargo forecasts, which is developed by the United States Department of Transportation. This forecasted decline is led by the significant decrease in coal (-59%) use in electric generation and subsequent shipping by barge along the Ohio River.

The future mix in waterborne commodities within the OKI region is expected to be led by the category of Other Agricultural Products. This includes dried and fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and soybeans. The largest increase (209%) is expected to come from the shipment of Basic Chemicals. This includes those used in manufacturing, such as caustic soda (used to make soaps and detergents); chlorine; and hydrochloric acid (used for household cleaners, food processing, and production of other chemicals).

River shipping in the region is also expected to see steady increases in commodities, such as base metals (70%); gravel (95%); coal-n.e.c. (not elsewhere classified) (54%); and nonmetallic minerals (66%).

Through interviews with local maritime representatives, there is an interest in diversifying the waterborne cargo mix in the region. This includes shipping commodities such as timber and containerized cargo, with the goal to not only grow shipping along the Ohio River, but to reduce the number of trucks necessary for longer-haul movements for these types of goods.

Future Waterway Performance

River waterborne commodities generally are those that are produced or needed within a maximum of 50 to 100 miles of the river terminal, due to the cost of mode transfer and landside transport. As a result, the performance of the region’s future river system will depend on its efficient connection to, and availability of, other modes. This is especially important as the industry actively tries to diversify the riverport cargo mix. Terminals will need to have access points for products other than bulk goods, such as containerized cargo.

Existing river terminals are privately owned and are maximizing the use of available space within their current properties. As small neighboring parcels have become available, private terminals have bought properties to expand their footprints. However, due to the competitive nature of riverfront property for other purposes, the availability of land for development of new Ohio River intermodal freight access is extremely limited in the OKI region.

Clermont County

With 27 miles of Ohio riverfront, Clermont County is studying the feasibility and benefit/costs of creating the region’s first and only public port. Such an investment would connect barge operations with the county’s roadway network.

Dearborn County

In OKI’s Dearborn County, the Southeast Indiana Regional Port Authority (SIRPA) has full power and authority independent of any political subdivision to:

  • Purchase, construct, sell, lease and operate docks, wharves, warehouses, piers and any other port, terminal or transportation facilities within its jurisdiction consistent with the purposes of the port authority and make charges for the use thereof.
  • Straighten, deepen, and improve any canal, channel, river, stream or other water course or way which may be necessary or proper in the development of the facilities of such port.
  • Establish dock lines, piers, and other freight and recreational facilities necessary to the conduct of pleasure boating and commercial marine support services within the territory under the jurisdiction of the port authority.

The SIRPA Board is working to set their agency’s mission and action plan. They are considering freight transportation-related activities. SIRPA is in the process of actively developing financially sustainable revenue stream options to support the development of a terminal within their jurisdiction. At the time of this freight plan, however, no specific recommendations have been stated. 

Technology Maximizing River Freight Efficiency

Long boat uses on-board crane to scoop product from an opening in the deck.

Self Discharging Vessel
Source: MacGregor. Cargo Handling Book. (August 2016).


Today, there is very little containerized cargo being transported via the inland waterway system. Nearly all of this cargo is transported to and from ocean ports via truck or rail. Where Container-on-Barge (COB) is in operation, riverport container barge operations do not necessarily use the same infrastructure for container handling as large ocean container terminals. This is because of the smaller volumes and limited landside capacity. Often, the specialized container moving equipment — such as gantry cranes or spread lifters — are not cost-effective investments for riverport container operations. In some cases, standard construction cranes can be used to load or discharge containers if they have the lifting capacity for a 30-ton load.


Self-discharging barges are container barges that have an on-board crane for loading and unloading containers. The advantage of these barges: They do not rely on shore- or dock-based cranes or lifting equipment. The vessel can be next to a river terminal dock that does not have equipment for lifting containers to/from the barge, providing greater flexibility as to the location where the vessel can be moored at a terminal and the type of terminals it can serve.

Given the nature of the inland waterway industry, adoption of self-discharging container barges will be driven by the private sector. These innovative vessels offer increased mobility for barge delivery operations; however, they will require specific infrastructure elements to maximize their benefit.

Unloading/Loading and Staging/Storage Capacity

Container shipping requires level land areas for staging containers for loading and unloading from barges. A level land area for short-term container staging and storage is also required.

Roadway/Railroad connections

River port container movement requires connections to truck and rail for final mile delivery and receiving.

Example of Self Discharging Container Barge Deployment

In Rotterdam, the Netherlands, self-discharging container barges are used to carry containers within the inland waterways, taking advantage of river capacity and reducing truck traffic and truck emissions. These barges also help reduce the overweight issues associated with moving containers via truck. However, it is recognized that both the vessel type and crane employed in Rotterdam, are not typically found in the U.S., where most inland river operations are tug and barge combinations. (Source: HDR, Inc. (February 7, 2023).)


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