Fresh attention is being paid to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway’s capabilities to handle additional cargo with new business already being welcomed on the U.S. side. As the world’s largest inland waterway system, essential to upwards of US$30 billion in annual revenues to regional industries, Hwy H20 is increasingly garnering recognition as the way to ship cargo between North America’s heartland and Western and Northern Europe.
“The vast Great Lakes navigational network is focused on achieving new economic and sustainability potential, and we are firing on all cylinders,” says Adam Tindall-Schlicht, who was appointed as the new Administrator of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (GLS) on November 6, 2022. “I really look forward to working with Great Lakes customers and stakeholders on these priorities.
“New visionary leadership by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg under the Biden-Harris Administration has given us a generational opportunity to reconsider how transportation infrastructure is operated multimodally, including in the maritime sector,” Tindall-Schlicht adds.
Key legislative changes in support of this new era include the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will bring about nearly $14 billion of investment in water, port, and harbour projects between 2023 and 2028. “We can expect to see a number of projects announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers related to the Great Lakes and Seaway,” Tindall-Schlicht says. “While some of this will relate to preventative maintenance, we can no longer make investment decisions based solely on economic and operational needs… Social and environmental resiliency must be considered.”
Other funding will likely stem from The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which looks to invest $369 billion in energy security and climate change programs over the next decade with the goal of reducing carbon emissions by approximately 40 per cent by 2030.
“Just in recent weeks, the DOT announced the fourth round of funding granted through the Port Infrastructure Development Program, and I was thrilled to see multiple ports on the Great Lakes selected to receive funding,” Tindall-Schlicht notes. “Approximately eight per cent of all the PIDP funding has gone to ports on the Great Lakes, including Milwaukee, Duluth, Cleveland, and Detroit, to prepare U.S. Great Lakes ports for new types of cargo and to improve supply chain efficiencies to support customers worldwide.”
Tindall-Schlicht’s optimism about this new era of visionary U.S. leadership is what convinced him to leave his position as the director of Port Milwaukee, returning to the GLS as the new Administrator. “I believe that my work at Port Milwaukee is applicable to this new challenge, especially during this time of growth and change in the Great Lakes supply chain, in the way ports are operated, and how infrastructure investments are considered nationally and internationally,” he says.
“We’re moving from a strictly commercial point of view to one in which Great Lakes and St. Lawrence ports on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border are embracing freshwater utilization and stewardship,” he explains. “To do so at the Seaway, we can integrate what we successfully did at Port Milwaukee, specifically economic, social and environmental stewardship integrative with capital planning, commercial growth, cargo diversification, and recreational expansion.”
Promoting and developing trade isn’t something new, of course. Both the Canadian and U.S. Seaway administrations have long promoted Hwy H20 as offering shippers direct access through maritime transportation into North America’s heartland.
However, global factors, including supply chain bottlenecks at East, Gulf, and West Coast ports, have many giving this 3,700-kilometre marine ‘highway’ another look. Another key consideration is the increasingly essential business case for both securing and decarbonizing supply chains.
“The reputation that the Great Lakes and Seaway ports have established in terms of safety, reliability, and efficiency has been highly beneficial in building trade relationships with customers abroad, particularly in Northern and Western Europe, during this period of supply chain uncertainty,” Tindall-Schlicht confirms.
Stronger trade interests between Western Europe and North America led to the Cleveland-Europe Express Service being established as the first container service on the Great Lakes in 2014. A year later, Spliethoff introduced a twice-monthly sailing between the ports of Baltimore and Antwerp/Zeebrugge with a connecting rail service from Baltimore to Cleveland during the months when the Great Lakes are inaccessible during the Seaway’s winter closure, proving that if there’s a will there’s a way around the Seaway’s seasonality.
“Both the Canadian and U.S. Seaway administrations want to hear feedback from existing and potential customers to expand existing resources – such as the toll calculator and route calculator – to further help with shipping decisions,” Tindall-Schlicht emphasizes. “I’m also eager to find out what the Seaway can do to enhance the system’s use through further developing and promoting new service offerings.”
Innovation has been a significant part of the Seaway’s modernization over the past decade. Last spring, both the Canadian and U.S. administrations began developing a new Voyage Information System (VIS) to further improve the accuracy of vessel transit planning and management. “It’s another great example of the Seaway corporations investing in new customer services,” Tindall-Schlicht notes.
MoU with Antwerp-Bruges
Just prior to his GLS appointment, Tindall-Schlicht was championing the region’s maritime system as part of a trade delegation organized by the Great Lakes Governors and Premiers (GSGP) to Antwerp, Belgium. His previous efforts were recognized in Europe with him being named on last year’s AntwerpXL’s “40 Under 40” list showcasing leaders in the breakbulk and heavy lift industry.
The GSGP signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Port of Antwerp-Bruges to further promote their existing trade corridor. The MoU commits to focusing on: operational excellence business development and marketing, innovation, and sustainability and environmental performance.
John Schmidt, the GSGP’s Program Manager for Maritime, says the visit provided the opportunity to better understand why some shippers are, or are not, currently making use of the benefits that the Great Lakes / St. Lawrence maritime system has to offer, and to learn how the region can best position itself going forward. “It was also a chance to specifically discuss next steps to building usage, efficiencies and sustainability,” Schmidt adds.
While some Great Lakes ports have been in business with the Port of Antwerp-Bruges for some time, the delegation’s goal was to increase such trade. “I learned that the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is larger than Manhattan – a huge place from which we can learn a lot in terms of realizing trade opportunities and efficiencies,” Schmidt relates. “That’s good reason for us to enhance the partnership that we already have.”
Duluth’s customs clearance
A key GSGP goal is to figure out what new Great Lakes cargoes are best suited to sail to Europe. “The twice-monthly container service established between Cleveland and Antwerp-Bruges was pivotal to prove the model works,” Schmidt notes. “Now it’s a question of what else we can do. For instance, Detroit is looking at the feasibility of shipping agricultural products to Europe by vessels.”
Further developing containerized trade both ways is a major strategy, with the Port of Duluth clearing a big hurdle last spring as only the second Great Lakes port after Cleveland with Customs officers to inspect and accept international containerized freight.
“It’s made a difference as our terminal has already received several containerized shipments,” says Deb DeLuca, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority’s Executive Director. “And our terminal operating agent is working to establish a regularly scheduled service.
“Containers provide the opportunity to diversify trade by accommodating various commodities, including agricultural products, components or semi-finished materials for manufacturing, as well as retail goods,” DeLuca adds.
DeLuca says the Duluth Seaway Port Authority discovered that many third-party logistics organizers weren’t yet familiar with the supply chain system’s availability and advantages. “The American Great Lakes Ports Association, the GLS, the Great Lakes Seaway Management Corporation, the GSGP, and the CMC have all been working, often in partnership, to make the advantages of using the system’s ports better known, and the system is gaining new customers as a result.”
Customers are seeking to diversify their supply chains. “The disruptions that arose surrounding the pandemic has them looking for varied routes,” DeLuca explains. “They don’t want to commit everything to one routing anymore.”
Already collaborating with the agent involved in the Cleveland-Antwerp Express Service, DeLuca would like to see more Great Lakes and Seaway ports obtain the necessary customs service to be able to clear imported containerized goods.
“While individual ports do compete to some extent, there’s no doubt that all of our ports would benefit from greater trade through the system if we can set up a container service network on both sides of the border that works for our European customers,” she explains. “Building this network would provide a critical mass to encourage sustainable regular sailings.”