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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Officials optimistic about port's resurgence


When dock congestion in Detroit kept a ship bringing 11,000 tons of steel to Michigan at anchor in the Detroit River last fall, the new stevedore at Toledo's general cargo docks arranged for the vessel to divert here for unloading.

Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority officials hope that sort of aggressiveness on the part of Midwest Terminals of Toledo International will bring continued revival to the local port, which last year slogged through its fourth straight season of declining business.

"They're going fast-forward on marketing," Warren McCrimmon, the port authority's seaport director, said last week after a trade mission to Italy. "They're being very aggressive in Europe and in China. I anticipate a solid gain there."

Matt Duty, Midwest Terminals' marketing director, said the firm has lined up some heavy-lift machinery cargoes from Brazil it will transfer to trucks for final delivery to Columbus. And the city of Toledo's plan to offer a shorter detour route for local trucks during an I-280 closing this year should be a boon for steel imports at the local docks, Mr. Duty said.

"That is excellent news we can take back to our steel suppliers in England," he said.

Steel coming in often translates to grain going out. Last spring, Mr. McCrimmon said, Toledo's riverfront elevators had plenty of inventory on hand but no way to ship it because too few vessels were coming in to port.

The 11,000 tons of steel Midwest brought in from Detroit helped boost last year's general cargo tonnage by 88 percent, to 122,514 tons. But it was an increase only because the 65,156 tons that crossed the local docks in 2003 represented the worst year in the port's modern history.

Overall, cargo volume dipped by more than 4 percent, dragged down by a continuing drop in Toledo's coal traffic, which fell below 4 million tons for the first time in decades last year.

A long-term decline attributable to power plants' increasing use of Wyoming and Montana coal that contains less sulfur has been worsened by the 1999 acquisition of Conrail by CSX and Norfolk Southern, which gave CSX better access to docks in northeastern Ohio. Previously, virtually all lake coal from CSX-served mines was delivered to Toledo for transfer to boats.

Mr. McCrimmon said he expects coal volume to stabilize this year, while iron ore traffic could increase "significantly" if a proposal to unload ore at the general cargo docks bears fruit.

In recent years, all ore unloading has been done at the railroad-owned Torco Dock, but capacity there is now consumed by ore going to AK Steel mills in Middletown, Ohio, and Ashland, Ky., Mr. McCrimmon said.

The new proposal is for ore to be unloaded onto the ground at the general cargo docks, then poured into railcars with bucket loaders. "This provides us with the ability to serve other customers" besides AK Steel, the seaport director said.

With the St. Lawrence Seaway opening last week, port officials expect Toledo's first overseas vessel - the Norway-registered Menominee, delivering 5,600 tons of German lumber - to dock late this week.

While general cargo routinely represents a small fraction of the total tonnage at Toledo's docks, its handling is the most labor -intensive and thus makes it a big jobs generator. The loading of outbound coal and grain cargoes, and inbound iron ore that flows onto trains for delivery to steel mills, is heavily mechanized.

Mr. Duty said the only potential crimp he sees in the Toledo port's business this year is the continuing heavy demand for ships in other markets. Heavy world shipping demand, especially from China, is soaking up a lot of the ships that might otherwise come in to the Great Lakes, he said.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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