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Bulk ports riding the waves

By William DiBenedetto, CBN Feature Editor

Port executives who track the fluctuations of the Baltic Dry Freight Index to get a line on supply and demand — and hence carrier movements and rate trends in the bulk sector — are probably scratching their heads this year.

That’s because the Baltic Index, which is a composite of sub-indexes that measure the activities of different sizes of dry bulk carriers (Capesize, Supramax and Panamax) for multiple geographic routes, has been more volatile and confounding than usual.

Given that context, what are the best U.S. bulk and breakbulk ports to watch? Hint: look for the ones that have invested heavily in bulk/breakbulk terminal space.

The Port of Houston leads the nation in breakbulk cargo, mainly because of the terminal areas it has dedicated to loading, off-loading and storing such cargo. The port features 47 different general cargo and heavy lift docks.

This year, the Port of Houston Authority plans to spend $275 million for various capital projects, and while most of it ($184 million) is earmarked for container terminal development, $35 million will fund improvements at general cargo and bulk terminals in the Turning Basin area.

Houston’s Turning Basin Terminal (pictured) is a multipurpose complex of 37 wharves equipped to handle just about any type of breakbulk, containerized, project or heavy-lift cargoes. Wharf 32 is specially designed for handling project and heavy-lift cargoes and features a 1,000-pound-per-square-foot load capacity. Last year PHA ranked first among U.S. ports in total foreign tonnage and second in terms of total foreign cargo value.

Cargo handled at the Port of New Orleans last year totaled 8.37 million tons, the highest since 2000 and an increase of 28 percent over the 2013 total. Breakbulk tons, at 3.76 million, were up 51.7 percent. New shippers such as Chiquita, which returned to the port after a 40-year hiatus, and project cargo generated by the growing chemical industry, likely will bolster cargo figures in the future, according to Gary LaGrange, port president and CEO. Port NOLA has 13,511 feet of berthing space available at six facilities tailored to breakbulk cargo; it also has 1.6 million square feet of transit shed area slotted for temporary breakbulk storage.

The Port of Baltimore ranks first among all U.S. ports for handling autos and light trucks, farm and construction machinery, imported forest products, imported sugar and imported aluminum. Overall, the port is ranked ninth in the U.S. for the total dollar value of cargo and 13th for cargo tonnage. The port’s Dundalk Marine Terminal covers 570 acres and handles breakbulk, forest products, ro/ro, autos, project cargo, farm and construction equipment, along with containers at six general cargo berths and seven container berths. The terminal has 10 sheds totaling 789,820 square feet, with 20 acres of container storage, 20 acres of breakbulk storage, 300 acres of automobile storage and 100 acres of ro/ro storage.

The Port of Mobile is the second-largest steel-handling port in the U.S., with more than 5 million tons handled in fiscal 2014. That total will increase with the addition of a new $36 million steel-coil handling facility. Mobile also handled 29.1 million tons of heavy-lift and oversized cargo, coal, lumber, plywood, wood pulp, laminate, flooring, roll and cut paper, iron, steel, frozen poultry, soybeans and chemicals.

Profits and volume are up at the Port of Virginia, and coffee trade could wake up its sluggish breakbulk performance. Last year the port was designated an "Exchange Port" for internationally traded Arabica coffee beans. In September 2016, the port will join the ports of New York and New Jersey, Miami, New Orleans and Houston as a designated domestic delivery point for Arabica beans.

Finally, the recently approved Northwest Seaport Alliance between Seattle and Tacoma could boost bulk and breakbulk activity at their "unified" terminals. The strategic plan is focused somewhat on the container trade but it also calls for repurposing smaller terminals for other marine cargoes, which could include logs, domestic cargo, breakbulk and autos. Grain terminals, however, remain outside the alliance.