For most people, the term "seaport" evokes images of salt air, waves lapping at the hulls of ships, and busy docks piled high with containers. But in Southeastern states like North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, it could also bring to mind rolling hills, railroad tracks, and bustling intermodal yards. That's because port authorities in those states have established "dry ports," located hundreds of miles from the ocean, to handle some of the containers transiting their harbors.
Arrangements vary depending on the parties and locations involved. Usually, though, port authorities will arrange rail transportation between their marine terminals on the coast and the inland ports they own. Importers and exporters typically pay their ocean carrier an all-inclusive rate that includes inland transport.
The first of these seaport-owned facilities, established in the 1980s, were slow to gain traction. But the concept proved prescient, and today, seaport-owned inland ports, especially those in the Southeast, are thriving. Container volumes are steadily increasing, and shippers like BMW, Procter & Gamble, and The Home Depot are taking full advantage of their services. The model has been so successful, in fact, that several new inland ports have opened in the past five years, and at least one more is on the drawing board.
Why are inland intermodal ports in the U.S. Southeast gaining in popularity now? What benefits—and potential drawbacks—do they offer for importers and exporters? Here's a quick overview.
WHY GO INLAND?
Seaports typically develop inland ports to help them address several common challenges. Some are operational, while others are related to business development. The reasons include:
WHAT'S IN IT FOR SHIPPERS
For an inland port to be successful, the economic value proposition must be strong for all parties: the seaport that owns and operates it, the railroad that connects the inland and marine terminals, and the importers and exporters that move their containers through the inland port.
"Everybody should be able to jointly see a true growth opportunity," Kemmsies says. But shippers may be the linchpin. Commitments from large importers or exporters with consistent container volumes—what he calls "anchor tenants"—are critical to ensure that the facility has the minimum number of "lifts" needed to cover the railroad's operating costs, he says.
There are several reasons why importers and exporters might want to make those big commitments. Being able to pick up and deliver containers to a facility that may be just a few miles or minutes away, rather than travel 200-plus miles and several hours to a seaport, produces cost and time savings that are hard to overlook. There's also less traffic congestion out in the country, and some intermodal facilities receive and allow pickup of containers 24 hours a day, offering more flexibility than marine terminals typically do. The potential savings are so attractive that it's not unusual for shippers to locate DCs close to inland ports, as The Home Depot, Kohl's, Rite Aid, and Red Bull have done near the Virginia Port Authority's inland port in Front Royal.
One example of a shipper that saw the potential benefits of an inland port and made them a reality is the automaker BMW. The South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) owned some land adjacent to a Norfolk Southern rail line in the town of Greer, 212 miles inland from the Port of Charleston. Nearby, BMW has a giant auto-assembly plant that was moving hundreds of import and export containers each day by truck. SCPA had long considered developing the parcel for intermodal use, but BMW, recognizing that reliable intermodal service could significantly reduce its costs and improve transportation efficiency, "pushed us to move forward," says Micah Mallace, director regional sales, South Carolina Ports.
Because Inland Port Greer is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the intermodal terminal can quickly process the 200-plus import containers that arrive every night via the Norfolk Southern, ensuring uninterrupted availability of parts at BMW's plant. Since Inland Port Greer opened in 2013, the railroad has moved over 180,000 containers for BMW, delivering them on a just-in-time basis to the assembly plant, which is served via a rail spur—no local trucking required.
LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP
While inland ports offer a number of advantages, importers and exporters should carefully weigh both the benefits and potential drawbacks before they make a commitment. First and foremost, perhaps, is to make sure the intermodal service on offer is regular, reliable, and cost-effective. Indeed, as the New Harbor Consultants report noted, shippers will use an inland intermodal port "if transit times, reliability, and cost are attractive compared to truck." In many cases, they are, and the inland ports consider that favorable comparison to be one of their major selling points.
Another consideration, JLL's Kemmsies says, is whether there may be service constraints. "A lot of inland ports will be served by only one railroad. Will you be getting away from expensive trucks and labor, only to fall into a situation where a lack of diversification is not in your favor?" he asks. Kemmsies advocates retaining the ability to reroute cargo "to maintain competitive strength as well as to improve reliability."
For shippers that are considering locating a DC close to an inland intermodal port, the availability of reasonably priced land with easy access to multimodal freight capacity is critical, Kemmsies says. But the biggest cost consideration right now is labor. "You want to know who else is located nearby. If the area you're looking at is not urban, four other DCs are there, and there's a limited labor pool, there will be lots of competition for labor." That can raise labor expenses, reducing or possibly eliminating the area's cost advantages.
And finally, trust but verify. Some inland ports do not function as advertised, according to Mallace. "When congestion, inflexible operations, limited working hours, unpredictable rail scheduling, or other such challenges become the norm at an inland port, the advantages quickly disappear," he cautions. "A correctly run inland port should reduce cost [for shippers] while at the same time improving the consistent flow of a supply chain."
MORE TO COME
Like their marine terminals, seaport-owned inland ports have seen steady growth in container volumes in recent years. The Virginia Inland Port at Front Royal, for example, set a new monthly record for container volume (including empties) in October 2018, handling 3,958 boxes, up nearly 18 percent over the same period in 2017. Front Royal may have been a victim of its own success; it recently received a $15.5 million federal grant to improve rail, road, and bridge infrastructure to ease traffic congestion.
Demand has been high enough, in fact, that several port authorities have built or will build additional inland terminals. Virginia, for example, added an inland port in Danville, near the West Virginia border. A new Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant nearby will soon join a customer roster that includes Rubbermaid, The Home Depot, and Family Dollar. South Carolina Ports opened a second intermodal facility, Inland Port Dillon, served by CSX, in April 2018. In North Carolina, the state port authority relaunched service via CSX from the Port of Wilmington to its Charlotte Inland Terminal. It also operates the Piedmont Triad Inland Terminal in Greensboro. And the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA), which started in 2013 with an inland port at Cordele, in the southern part of the state, opened the Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth, nearly 400 miles from the Port of Savannah, in August 2018. Among its biggest users are the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.; car parts manufacturers; and carpet and flooring producers in northwest Georgia and eastern Tennessee. And there's more: In December 2018, GPA announced plans for the Northeast Georgia Inland Port near Gainesville, to open in 2021.
The number of inland ports will grow in the near future, Kemmsies predicts. Not only are they effective options for avoiding congested seaport environs, but they also can help to counter the effects of the truck shortage. "We need an alternative to tapped-out truck capacity. With electronic logging devices, it's becoming a lot harder to get truck capacity, and the hours-of-service restrictions on top of severely congested roadways are affecting how far truckers can go and come back on the same day," he says. Pair that with record-high import container volumes and increasingly big ships, and it looks like the need for inland intermodal ports will only grow.