Apr 5, 2024 - News

Great Lakes ports could get a boost as supply chains diversify

Wind tower components on a ship at the Port of Monroe in 2020.

A vessel carrying wind towers for General Electric at the Port of Monroe in 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Paul LaMarre

The fallout from Baltimore's deadly bridge collapse could result in more business for local ports.

The big picture: The Port of Baltimore leads the nation for automobile shipments and handled 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo worth nearly $81 billion in 2023, the Washington Post reports.

Driving the news: Great Lakes ports can be viable long-term alternatives to East Coast ports, port officials in Detroit and Monroe tell Axios, as shipping companies and manufacturers consider diversifying their supply chains to handle such catastrophes.

Between the lines: Rather than use the Great Lakes, in-state manufacturers typically transport goods to coastal ports via truck or rail.

What they're saying: Port of Monroe director Paul LaMarre sees an opportunity to reverse the decline of Great Lakes shipping.

  • "The opportunity exists to have a direct trade lane to Europe with vehicles made in southeast Michigan or northwest Ohio straight from our ports," he tells Axios.

Zoom in: The Port of Monroe is preparing for more cargo with the opening of a new container terminal in 2025.

  • It's part of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System and mostly handles bulk commodities like iron ore, coal, limestone and grain.

🥊 Reality check: Any new business would likely be a fraction of what the East Coast sees.

  • The St. Lawrence system's conditions limit the size of vessels to about 730 feet long and 75 feet wide, LaMarre says.
  • Business activity at Detroit's port is limited by a complicated master concession agreement reached during former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's tenure.

Case in point: While vessels on the coast can handle 20,000 containers, LaMarre says a victory at the Port of Monroe would be 400-800 containers per month.

Nevertheless, Detroit port officials reached out to large automakers that rely on the Port of Baltimore to remind them that using Great Lakes ports makes business sense.

  • "We definitely want to be on the consideration list for plan B," John Jamian, director of operations for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, tells Axios.
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