Great Lakes ports look toward seas

The American and Canadian Midwest is known for its vast stretches of corn, wheat, and soybean fields -- not for its three dozen commerical seaports . . . yes, seaports.

Now, a major marketing drive is being launched by the ports, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the US and Canadian governments to introduce producers, shippers, and American voters to the Great Lakes ports.

The immediate aim is to convince shippers that the 2,342 miles Great Lakes-St. Lawrence route from Duluth, Minn., to the Atlantic Ocean, offers a fast and cost-effective transportation ststem.

The longer-range aim is to tell voters that the consumer pays the extra costs when Midwestern goods are shipped by roar or rail rather than water.Midwestern port boosters hope once this message penetrates, public pressure will force the US government to support rather than "neglect" the Great Lakes ports.

Last year, the Great lakes system handled over 160 million metric tons of cargo. Over 55 million metric tons moved through the locks and canals of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which gives 80 percent of the world's oceangoing ships direct access to the Midwest ports. ("Salties" up to 730 feet long, 75 feet wide, drawing 27 feet can enter the system and "climb" by locks to Lake Superior 600 feet above sea level.)

Of the 37 ports on the US side of the Great Lakes, 27 are deep enough for the 27-foot depths of seaway traffic, says the US Army Corps of Engineer, and about six of the 15 Canadian Great Lakes ports are dredged to that depth.

The seaway's opening in 1959 produced a unique opportunity. The new water route meant the great grain ports of the Midwest such as Toledo, Chicago, and Duluth were now a shorter direct sailing distance from Rotterdam than Baltimore -- which had built itself up as a major outlet for Midwestern grain and industrial goods.

The seaway connection turned minor inland harbors into seaports able to link the Great Lakes regions's rich farmlands, industries, and 37 million people with all parts of the world.

Yet 20 years later, only 14 percent of the grain and just 10 percent of the $ 30 billion in goods exported by Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsion, and Minnesota are shipped out through the lakes. The bulk travels by road and rail or by barge down the Mississippi.

At present there is no scheduled express shipping from the Great Lakes to Europe. Yet according to John M. Murphy (D) of New York, chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. "There is sufficient tonnage available in the region to support three separate weekly services to northern European ports."

Midwestern shippers, port directors, and government officials agree that Great Lakes ports should handle more cargo. Many fuel that with rapidly growing world demand for American agricultural products, farmers will be able to meet the demands -- but that transportation bottlenecks will limit US ability to deliver the goods quickly and economically.

Currently, ice closes the St. Lawrence Seaway from Dec. 15 through April 1. Shippers who might use the water route for the eight and a half months it is open can't afford to -- because they get favorable routes and transport during peak periods only if they use the railroads year-round.

Maxim Cohen, who was general manager of the Port of Chicaco for 26 years and saw it become the busiest Great Lakes port, says the shipping season must be extended to ten months. Still active as the port's consultant. Mr. Cohen believes that by working together Great Lakes ports can offer a very cost-effective, year-round service. During the months the seaway is closed, the ports themselves could handle rail shipments via Albany and the Hudson River with a single year-round rate offered to shippers.

Mr. Cohen has seen the Great Lakes win several battles. For instance, the region was designated "the fourth seacoast" and finally won a regional office of the US Maritime Administration in 1975. But he accepts that it will be a tough upstream swim to:

* Extend the shipping season to ten months.

* Reduce the seaway tools, which cost the average ship up to $25,000 per passage.

* Attract major shipping lines into the lakes.

The Maritime Administration's regional director in cleveland, George Ryan, agrees that the Great Lakes system faces unique problems. "The East Coast and Gulf Coast ports and the railroad interests have consistently lobbied against the St. Lawrence Seaway," he says. "That goes right back to 1910 and right through the Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations.'

In the current battle over extending the seaway shipping season beyond Dec. 15, Mr. Ryan says, "It is very clear that the East Coast interests have aligned themselves with the environmentalits to oppose any season extension."

But, says the Port of Chicago assistant general manager, David Nyquist, the Great Lakes are going to win the extension -- thanks to the energy crisis.

Near his office, an immense drawbridge system upends one 20-ton grain truck after another to fill one of the port's two 6.5 million bushel grain elevators -- and a string of railroad hopper cars unload more grain. Mr. Nyquist says confidently: "The high cost of energy will eventually have shippers and receivers of cargo taking a close hard look at how they can handle cargo in the most efficient manner."

To be ready for the new business, Chicago has just opened a new container terminal on the lake front capable of berthing five ships at once and handling 250,000 "boxes" per year. Similar investment is pouring into other lake ports from Buffalo and Toledo to Milwaukee and Thunder Bay.

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