Friday, August 17, 2012

What do the port rankings really mean?

The Port of Greater Cincinnati is planning to expand its port designation which will elevate its ranking in the US Army Corps of Engineers table of ports and their tonnages.  They have requested that the USACE redefine its port designation from the current 26-mile riverfront to a 200-mile stretch of the Ohio River between Madison, Ind., and Portsmouth, Ohio.  The Port of Cincinnati currently ranks 44th among all ports, and port officials believe that the new designation will put them near the top ten.  In actuality, Cincinnati's primary motive for expanding their port designation is economics and capturing business.  Plus, they are banking on a surge in shipments entering the country due to the Panama Canal expansion as projected by the AAPA.  The port ranking is just a bonus, but it will no doubt be heavily touted in marketing campaigns.

Granted, the Port of Pittsburgh wasn't always defined as it is today.  The "Port of Pittsburgh" was defined as the area within the city limits until 1979 when it was redefined as including the Ohio River to mile 40, the Monongahela River to mile 43, and the Allegheny River to mile 30.  Then in 1993, the Port of Pittsburgh was designated as all of the navigable rivers within Southwestern Pennsylvania.  This last change, however, was also not done to increase port rankings but to ensure that all waterway interests in the region could benefit from the newly created Port Commission which was an agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Since it appears that how an inland river port is defined is very loose and arbitrary, what value do port rankings really have?  For a number of years, the Port of Pittsburgh ranked as the busiest inland river port on the Inland Waterway System, handling 40 to 50 million tons per year until 2000 when the Port of Huntington Tri-State was created which transformed the Port of Huntington's 14 miles of river into a 100-mile tri-state Port district which ranges from the mouth of the Scioto River near Portsmouth, stretching upstream to the northern boundary of Gallia County, Ohio; 9 miles of the Big Sandy River and 90 miles of the Kanawha River.  This meant that its tonnage handled annually was now in the 80-million ton range, putting the Port of Huntington Tri-State into the number one ranking of inland ports and (at the time) sixth among all ports.

Of course, the important thing is that waterway transportation continues to garner support due to the enormous economic and environmental benefits that are bestowed on not only those in and around port districts, but on the nation as a whole.  As for port rankings, how much meaning can they have when the definition of the term "port" is different in every instance?  It's not unlike discussing home run stats for baseball players when you realize that ball parks are not all the same size and then notice that some of the guys near the top of the standings play their home games in parks with closer outfield walls.

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