Columbia Coastal revamps mid-Atlantic ‘green’ container service

Columbia Coastal Transport has reconfigured its mid-Atlantic container barge service to the ports of Norfolk, Baltimore and Philadelphia, a move it hopes will attract new customers while reducing the amount of freight that travels over highways.

Previously, the company ran separate weekly container barges out of Norfolk, with one round trip to Baltimore and another round trip to Philadelphia. Each route required a separate tug and barge combination, and cargo could not move easily or especially quickly from Baltimore to Philadelphia.

Courtesy McAllister Towing & Transportation/Capt. Chris Carmell

The tug Katie G. McAllister takes the container barge Columbia Elizabeth alongside at an anchorage in Hampton Roads, Va., for the transit into Norfolk. By linking the ports of Norfolk, Baltimore and Philadelphia, the operation aims to divert cargo from highways to water.

The new service comprises a weekly round trip between Norfolk and Baltimore early in the week, and a second run later in the week from Norfolk that stops in Baltimore and then goes to Philadelphia before returning to Norfolk. The changes took effect March 10.

Freight that moves on the barge service is carried by the 343-foot barge Columbia Elizabeth, which can hold 912 TEUs. The barge is pulled by McAllister Towing’s 4,300-hp, twin-screw tugboat Katie G. McAllister, which has a crew of six.

Steve Alley, the Norfolk Operations Manager for Columbia Coastal, said the new service gives existing and prospective shippers more options to move goods between the three ports. But he said the Liberty Corner, N.J.-based company is also highlighting the “green” aspects of its barge service when talking with potential customers.

“A lot of what we are trying to do is educate some of the various end users out there to the fact that … (they) can do the environment a big favor if they use the barge versus all the trucks they would be using,” he said. “It’s more efficient than a train, and both a train and a barge are much more efficient than a truck.”

Columbia Coastal’s new service comes nearly two years after the U.S. Maritime Administration announced its Marine Highways program, which was created to promote waterborne cargo service between U.S. ports as a viable alternative to shipping by truck. The program seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ease congestion on roadways, while also connecting important shipping centers.

All told, there are 11 maritime highway corridors spread across the country, and most track alongside major highways, including Interstate 5 on the West Coast, Interstate 95 on the East Coast and Interstate 55, which parallels the Mississippi River. The government has dedicated at least $7 million to develop the program since it was announced in April 2010.

Federal officials hailed the Columbia Coastal’s expanded service along the busy I-95 corridor as another step in the right direction.

“Our economy depends on the development of a more efficient and greener U.S. transportation system,” said U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, in a statement to Professional Mariner. “This expansion helps demonstrate that energy-efficient marine highway service can be a viable option for freight movement along the congested ‘M-95’ corridor, as well as many others.”

Capt. Elliott Westall, vice president and general manager of McAllister’s Norfolk office, said the route change frees up that second tugboat for other jobs.

“If I can do the same job with one boat, instead of using two boats for two separate jobs, that’s a win-win,” he said, adding that the other tugboat has already been put to use elsewhere.

Less than a month into the new service, Alley said the barge has been running about two-thirds full, but that he hopes to sign up more customers.

“It is attracting new interest. We have actually started to get some new cargo because of it, and we just hope that trend continues,” he said.

In the meantime, federal transportation officials say they’ll continue working to enhance the Marine Highways program.

“We will continue to assist encouraging the development of these more innovative services that relieve land-side congestion, reduce emissions and provide significant economic and environmental benefits to our country,” Matsuda said.

By Professional Mariner Staff