Tons of scrap metal, noisily showering down into the hold on Wednesday, filled the first barge to dock at the Port of Kansas City since 2007.
The transfer from a heaping mound on the riverside entertained about two dozen Kansas City officials Wednesday who celebrated the rebirth of the Woodswether Terminal on city-owned land.
PortKC president Michael Collins, in hard hat and yellow construction vest, said the reopened site is one of few public ports on the Missouri River and should serve as an economic stimulus when used by shippers from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
PortKC, which rebranded itself from the Port Authority of Kansas City in May, has teamed with Kaw Valley Companies to operate the port at 1724 Market St., a bumpy spur off Woodswether Road northwest of Kansas City’s downtown.
The first barge to dock at the reopened facility deposited a load of mill slag, to be used in construction, that came from Peoria, Ill., and will return Thursday to Peoria with the scrap metal that will be turned into steel.
“One barge equals 87 truckloads,” Collins said, extolling the economic advantage of barge travel.
PortKC, which has a long-term lease from the city, intends to expand the largely undeveloped site from the current eight acres to about 14 acres. It also is working to reconnect the dock site to a nearby Union Pacific rail line that runs along Woodswether Road.
“We expect to get four or five barges this month and hope by October we’ll be seeing eight to 10 barges,” Collins said. “At full capacity, we hope to get 12 to 15 a month.”
The site now is marked by weathered and weather-exposed warehouse-type buildings owned by the city. Collins said he expects they’ll eventually be torn down or in some way renovated for reuse.
The terminal site dates to the 1860s. It’s mostly bare ground, allowing for mounds of shipping materials to be dumped and stored until loaded on barges.
“We had good years and bad years,” said local attorney Mike Burke, who is a former chairman and legal counsel for the Port Authority.
In the late 70s and early ’80s, there was pretty good barge traffic coming out of Kansas City, he said.
“Starting in the late ’80s, we hit a series of problems — a number of them were weather-related and a number of them were political,” Burke said.
Those troubles included a series of drought years upstream and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not being able to guarantee a 9-foot navigational channel up to Sioux City, Iowa, Burke said.
Also, litigation broke out between the upstream states that wanted to preserve water for agriculture and recreation.
“There was a period of about a decade where barge traffic tapered off considerably,” Burke said.
Between the litigation and the drought years, barge operators eventually chose not to serve Kansas City on a regular basis. The city’s port facility fell into disrepair, he said.
The railroads and trucking industry moved in to fill in the gap because shippers wanted reliability.
The port closed seven years ago, partly because river levels had dropped, reducing barge traffic. PortKC’s predecessor organization began working in 2011 to try to reopen it and signed a lease with the city in 2012. It then signed on Kaw Valley as the operator.
Kaw Valley, which operates a sand and gravel company among other business lines, is using the port for its own business as well as for independent traffic.
River Marine Enterprises is providing the towing and port services for the barge traffic.
The Corps of Engineers measures traffic volume by ton-miles and uses three categories — high use, medium use and low use. The Missouri River is one of the higher low-use inland navigable rivers in the United States.
To go from a low use to high use, a river has to exceed 2 billion ton miles. The Missouri River is about half that, said James Rudy, area engineer with the Operations Division of the Kansas City District. He oversees the Missouri River from Rulo, Neb., to the Mississippi River.
Most of the barges carry fertilizer, grain and cement components. There also has been an increase in large construction components like tanks and pre-manufactured factory parts up to Sioux City.
“In general over the last two or three years, the amount of traffic on the Missouri River has been increasing again,” Rudy said. “Four years ago, we basically had three terminals that were operating. Last year, there were either loads that were arriving or were receiving out of seven. And Kansas City will be eight this year.”
He said the growth can be attributed to shippers better explaining how the system works, including what they can accomplish and the risk involved.
Because the Missouri River doesn’t have any locks or dams, it tends to be more free-flowing with a lot of bends and corners. It also has a higher velocity.
There is no navigation season on the Missouri River, Rudy said, but lower water levels during the winter months could prevent deep boats from navigating the river. The Missouri River doesn’t technically close.
“The biggest shipper on the Missouri River has been shipping for 35 years and only has failed to make money one year,” Rudy said. “That wasn’t because of water levels. It was because they didn’t have any business. It’s incredibly reliable if you’re willing to go out and take the risk to do it.”