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More cargo could mean more freight handing for Duluth

Many more types of cargo will be moving on the Great Lakes in the future, if Adolph Ojard's crystal ball can be trusted.

As executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, Ojard foresees a day when the chain of lakes will relieve more of the pressure being placed on the nation's railroads and highways.

But it will likely take big investments in facilities and new ships to make Ojard's dream reality.

Toward that end, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority has begun to study how the now-vacant Garfield Pier might be turned into a freight-handling facility for the future. The pier was once home to a Cargill grain elevator, but the structure was demolished, leaving the port with a 28-acre clean canvas for development

Access to the property will improve with the completion of the Helberg Drive corridor this summer. The $6 million project involves building a heavy-haul road skirted by new tracks for the Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads.

"Helberg Drive could serve as a timely catalyst for making development possible," said Jim Sharrow, the Port Authority's facilities manager.

This past week, the Port Authority's board of commissioners unanimously voted to authorize the expenditure of up to $78,000 to study how best to use Garfield Pier.

Duluth's waterfront soon could be getting much busier, thanks to a few recent developments:

r Enbridge Energy expects to begin construction of a new pipeline in 2007 that could result in the import of about 1,400 miles of 3-foot-diameter pipe, possibly by ship.

r Minnesota Steel Industries plans to open a steel mill near Nashwauk, expected to produce 1.2 million tons of slab steel by 2009 and perhaps twice as much by 2012.

r And shipments of power-generating equipment for Midwestern wind farms continue to grow.

All three of these factors could fuel new marine traffic in the Twin Ports.

"We're trying to work ahead, so we can be a player," Ojard said.

Redeveloping Garfield Pier will be costly. Sharrow said it could cost as much as $5 million simply to replace failing dock faces and dredge out sediments that have reduced water depths around the pier to as little as 20 feet. Working docks would ideally be surrounded by water at least 27 feet deep.

The Port Authority plans to study other facilities as it searches for ideas on how to configure Garfield.

Ojard pointed to a fully-automated facility in Hamilton, Ontario, as being of special interest. There, all the cargo is positioned for the next day's shipments in the middle of the night, when off-peak electrical rates make the work less expensive.

Ojard said Duluth has an immediate need for more area to stage cargo. He pointed to a time this year when the Duluth received three back-to-back vessels delivering wind power equipment.

"We were plugged with the scheduling of three ships this year," he said. "We simply need more lay-down area."

"We want every project to flow. We don't want to hinder anyone, so the more space we have, the better," said Denise McDougall, warehouse coordinator at Lake Superior Warehousing Co.

"The more word gets out that Duluth is a place that can handle these kinds of special cargo, the more business we'll see," she predicted.

Ojard said it would make sense for Minnesota Steel to ship its steel slab out of Duluth by water, too, as many U.S. and Canadian mills on the Great Lakes have excess rolling capacity, creating a ready market for the product. However, Ojard observed that most vessels on the Great Lakes appear poorly suited to haul slab steel.

He said new ships would likely be needed to make such a venture work.

When it comes to moving bulk cargos such as taconite, coal or limestone carriers on the Great Lakes are second to none. But most of the vessels in the U.S. Great Lakes fleet are so tailored to the task of transporting bulk commodities that they make poor platforms for moving other goods.

Ojard remains hopeful maritime operators will recognize the opportunity to move new types of cargo on the Great Lakes and will respond by building more flexible vessels. The scene won't change overnight, however. It typically takes three to five years' lead time to build a ship.

Still, Ojard remains excited by the prospect of a new breed of ship appearing on the Great Lakes.

"This could be the biggest thing since the opening of the Seaway," he said.

"In a way, we could be going back to another era," Ojard noted, pointing out that up until the 1950s break-bulk, or general cargo, vessels were common on the Great Lakes. "We could be going back to the future to try to take advantage of the efficiencies of water."

Shipping freight by water generally costs about one-tenth what it would to transport it by truck and one-half what it would to move it by train.

"The Great Lakes are an underutilized transportation resource, without question," said Richard Stewart, director of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Transportation and Logistics Research Center.

Meanwhile, the need for alternatives to trucks and trains is becoming more evident, he said.

"The cumulative effects of rising energy prices, infrastructure costs and delays have all driven up the expense of land-based transportation. And there's every indication the trend will continue," he said. "Developing water links could help provide some relief."