The Tulsa Port of Catoosa, already a major multi-modal shipping complex serving as a distribution point for more than 2 million tons of cargo a year, is poised to become a relief point for overloaded west coast ports.
“My colleagues in Los Angeles and Long Beach would tell you, ‘Get ready,’” said Robert W. “Bob” Portiss, port director.
“The volume of commerce moving around our country is incredible — so much so, that our West Coast ports are heading for gridlock,” Portiss, who has been director for more than 20 years, said.
The Los Angeles port is shipping more than a million containers a year.
“It’s not unusual to see 20 ships in queue. Something’s got to give.”
“Everything is going to start to gravitate to the Gulf Coast,” and some of that traffic will find its way to the Tulsa port, Portiss said.
With the expansion of the Panama Canal, “we are going to see greater capacity there to handle bigger and more ships,” he said. “I think all of a sudden you are going to see ports and wharves built out in the ocean, and those deep draft ships that otherwise can’t move up the Mississippi to New Orleans are going to unload their containers at those docks and put those containers into barges.
Some of the barges will unload at New Orleans and others will continue upstream to the Port of Catoosa.
“It’s going to happen,” he said.
“We are so convinced that when we recently took on our sixth amendment to our master plan, which we just finished, one of the things we did was allocate land for a container-on-barge operation,” Portiss said. “We have the physical capabilities of providing that kind of service.”
Ready to Grow
The Tulsa Port of Catoosa, at the northeast edge of the Tulsa metro area, sits at the head of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. It is one of the country’s largest inland, ice-free ports and inter-modal transportation centers with access to Class I railroads, interstate highways and airfreight.
The 445-mile waterway links Oklahoma and the surrounding five-state area with ports on the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi river systems, and foreign and domestic ports beyond by way of New Orleans and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
The 2,000-acre business complex, which includes its own foreign trade zone, offers industrial sites for lease or sale to companies involved in manufacturing, distribution and processing of products ranging from agricultural commodities to manufactured consumer goods. There is more than 1 million SF under roof.
The port is self-sufficient, operating on a revenue budget of $4,345,900 for fiscal year 2006-07, with revenues primarily generated from leases and operations. Opened in 1971, it is managed by the City of Tulsa-Rogers County Port Authority and provides development services through Tulsa’s Port of Catoosa Facilities Authority.
In the 35 years since the port opened, Portiss said it has grown to “over 60 industries, close to 4,000 people working, and payroll is about $145 million just coming off the project here.”
Total public investment is about $65 million, he said.
“We have leveraged that to generate about $950 million in private investment,” Portiss said.
“Our glass is probably about two-thirds full,” he said. “We are getting down to the bare bones now. We may have about 350 acres of good usable ground – the rest we might be able to manipulate to get some more.”
He said the authority is exploring options to grow the port.
Tonnage, which peaked at 2.42 million in 1998, has approached 2.3 million for five of the seven ensuing years. This year, it has already topped 2.12 million before December numbers.
“Tonnage is such a cyclical thing,” Portiss said. “Given the drought we have been faced with and our grain shipments, it nevertheless looks like right now we are going to end up either equal to our best year of record or possibly even exceed it.”
Tonnage should continue to grow 10-20 percent a year, he said.
“Would it be unusual for us to handle 5 million tons a year? No, not a bit,” he said. “We don’t even have double shifts today for handling cargo. So if you go to two shifts, theoretically you would double your tonnage.”
Portiss said the port has the infrastructure in place to handle that much cargo.
“How much further can we go? I don’t know – we haven’t really put a pencil to it.”
Transportation is Key
Most of the companies located at the port because of its central U.S. location and the transportation options.
DeBruce Grain, Inc., a subsidiary of Kansas City, Mo.-based giant DeBruce Cos., started its own operations at the port in March this year after working for years through other shippers, said John Goetting, plant manager.
“Basically, the transportation structure that’s offered here with the barge, truck and rail fits well with our business model, and what we do and the markets we trade,” he said. “It’s a good fit.”
He said DeBruce serves a regional area, bringing in bulk fertilizer and loading out grain – wheat, milo, beans, with most of it going to the New Orleans for export.
He said the facility has 37,000 tons of fertilizer storage completed and operational, and 1.5 million tons of grain storage under construction and due to be complete in early 2007. Currently, shipments are about 10 barges of fertilizer and about 15 barges of grain a month. He expects the current employment of 16 to remain the same.
“We have been doing business here for the last 25 years through other companies,” he said, “and we have grown to the point where we have the bulk to do it ourselves.”
Location, Location, Location
Alcan Packaging, which is in the process of scaling up to double its production of packaging for food processors, “selected the port as a strategic location in relation to our customer base,” said Luis Bogran, plant manager.
One of 18 U.S. food packaging plants operated by Alcan Packaging, a unit of the Montreal-based Alcan Group, the port operation ships product and raw materials exclusively by truck, Bogran said.
Formerly Pechiney Plastic Packaging, the 120,000-SF plant, which opened in March 2004, employs 32. Bogran said that number will climb to 48 in early 2007 in the expansion that was planned when the plant was built.
“Right now we are producing and selling about 2.5 million bags a month,” he said. “By the end of next year we will be doing a little bit over 5 million bags.”
In addition to its location, Bogran said other deciding factors for selecting the port site were the availability of a skilled employee base and “the strong Tulsa Technology Center support” in training those employees.
“We have access to different interstate highways from the port, and we are within a two-day transit of our customer base,” he said. “We can reach the east coast as well as the west coast from here.”
So Much for So LIttle
One of the most important economic impacts of the port is “that we can move so much for so little,” Portiss said. “We can move two bushels of grain to the Gulf by water cheaper than you can buy a first-class postage stamp.”
He said that is possible because of the capacity of the barges used for shipping.
“A standard river barge today will hold the equivalent of 60-semi trailer trucks,” he said. “So a 12-barge tow, which would not be unusual to leave here, would be the equivalent of 720 trucks.”
“But when we get our channel deepened to 12 feet, which we’re working on now, that will increase the capacity per barge to 80, which all of a sudden means a 12-barge tow will be equal to 960 truckloads,” Portiss said. “The same boat will push those same barges with that additional tonnage – a boat that will have probably 3,500 hp and a crew of maybe 10.”
“That’s pretty impressive,” he said. “You are displacing 960 semi-trailer trucks and truck drivers, so all of a sudden it starts to make some sense in terms how we can move things so cheaply.” ?