America’s Niche Ports
At one time, many ports competed for the lucrative and growing container business—but not every port was suited to handle containers. As ships got larger and started calling on fewer ports, the ports with the deepest drafts and the most spare acreage won out.
Ports got smart. Those not making money handling containers found success with other cargoes such as bulk and break-bulk commodities, automobiles, roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) equipment and project cargoes.
San Francisco is a case in point. A city with a glorious maritime past, the port hasn’t handled containers since 2005, concentrating instead on break-bulk. The strategy to attract break-bulk business is the flip side to the domination of containers by neighboring Oakland.
RO/RO cargo—which includes vehicles and equipment on wheels—has emerged as a growing niche market for specialty ports. Manufacturers, importers, exporters, processors and steamship lines are naturally attracted to ports that have invested in RO/RO infrastructure and have developed competencies in that area.
Not all niche ports are small ports. Some fairly large ports, such as Baltimore, Houston and San Diego, have made strategic decisions to pursue niches and have invested their capital accordingly.
HERE ARE 20 TOP NICHE PORTS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT.
Port of Albany
Upstate New York is crowded with manufacturers of industrial equipment, and much of their export shipments start their journey in the port of Albany. The port has 3,000 feet of dedicated project cargo berth space and benefits from rail service provided by the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Albany Port Railroad.
Port of New Haven
The largest port between Boston and New York, Port of New Haven, Connecticut, specializes in handling break-bulk cargoes such as scrap metal, lumber, cement, steel, sand, stone and salt as well as bulk and project cargoes. The port benefits from water, rail and highway multimodal connections. Land-use initiatives will expand port activities and the imminent inauguration of the first statewide port authority will be followed by an influx of capital.
Port of Camden
Across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Port of Camden, New Jersey, has long specialized in various niche break-bulk cargoes. With Camden full to capacity, the South Jersey Port Corp. decided to expand southward to Paulsboro. The project, begun in 2009, is turning a defunct industrial site into a modern port and industrial park, including a 190-acre marine terminal with four berths. Local government has funded construction of an access road from I-295, a major north-south route, allowing trucks to flow in and out of the port without traversing municipal thoroughfares.
Port of Wilmington
The vehicle processor AutoPort handles exports for General Motors and Fiat Chrysler at the Port of Wilmington in Delaware. The port enhanced its RO/RO infrastructure in recent years with the construction of a new auto berth and a dedicated causeway linking the berth directly with AutoPort staging areas. Other port attractions include links to three U.S. interstate highways and direct rail connections to the Midwest and Southeast.
Port of Baltimore
Automobiles and RO/RO, agricultural and construction equipment exports are among Baltimore’s strategic niches, and the port has emerged as a leader in all. Baltimore’s inland location on the Chesapeake Bay positions the port closer to Midwest manufacturers, reducing transportation costs. The port has developed new auto and RO/RO facilities in recent years and is served by Norfolk Southern and CSX rail connections. Baltimore has also attracted its share of project exports, another of its announced niches, which are often carried by RO/RO lines that call on the port.
Port of Brunswick
Port of Brunswick, part of Georgia Ports Authority, has made a name for itself handling autos. BMW ships SUVs made in Spartanburg, South Carolina, through Brunswick’s Colonel’s Island Auto Facility, and Ford, General Motors and Mercedes all utilize the terminal for outbound services. Investments in new infrastructure has allowed Brunswick to become the fifth-largest auto port in the U.S.
More than 450,000 vehicles were exported through the Port of Jacksonville last year, making it one of the busiest ports for vehicle handling. The Blount Island Marine Terminal boasts one of the nation’s highest weight-bearing capacity docks. Forest products are among the break-bulk commodities handled at the port. Jacksonville is served by three interstate highways and three railroads: CSX, Norfolk Southern and Florida East Coast Railway.
Port Manatee can handle RO/RO ships at any of its commercial cargo berths. Berth 9 is used extensively by RO/RO shippers and has been used to export automobiles, buses, tractor-trailers and other types of rolling cargo. Berth 12, a $200 million expansion project opened in 2011, also handles RO/RO.
Ports of Indiana – Burns Harbor
The Ports of Indiana – Burns Harbor, 18 miles southeast of Chicago on Lake Michigan, has traditionally handled exports of agricultural commodities, minerals, forest products and break-bulk cargoes over the Great Lakes and out the St. Lawrence Seaway. In recent years it has also been handling project exports thanks to shipments from Iowa’s Acciona Windpower plant. The port is served by the Norfolk Southern and Indiana Harbor Belt railroads and also has access to four interstate highways.
Port of New Orleans
New Orleans saw its cargo volumes soar in 2014 and break-bulk was a big part of that growth. The port boasts more than 13,000 feet of berthing space at six break-bulk facilities and 1.6 million square feet of transit shed area. Rail and waterway connections make New Orleans a good candidate for moving oversized and overweight cargo. Several heavy-lift shipping lines offer regular service into New Orleans.
The Port of South Louisiana
Stretching 54 miles along the Mississippi River, the Port of South Louisiana handles most of the bulk-grain exports produced in the Midwest and a large proportion of total U.S. grain exports by volume. Exports of crude oil through the port experienced 1,800-percent growth from 2012 to 2014 and chemicals and fertilizers increased 753 percent during the same period. Three interstate highways and three Class I railroads—the Union Pacific, Canadian National and Kansas City Southern—serve the port.
Port of Beaumont
The Port of Beaumont, Texas, has parlayed its specialty in moving military RO/RO traffic into a business that handles civilian cargoes as well. Beaumont’s civilian cargo consists mainly of processed vehicles and heavy project cargo. The port expanded its facilities in the early 2000s to include a 100,000-square-foot transit shed, located adjacent to the port’s RO/RO facility.
Port Corpus Christi
The port at Corpus Christi, Texas, is best known for handling dry and liquid bulk commodities. Its slow but steady development of the La Quinta Trade Gateway Terminal, a 1,100-acre multipurpose facility, will serve to diversify the port’s capabilities to handle containers, wind turbines and steel pipe. The project’s first tenant, Gulf Compress, will be exporting 6,000 containers of cotton per year. The project is located adjacent to U.S. Highway 181 and I-37 and is served by on-site rail.
Port of Houston
Houston handles a great deal of project cargo—much of it exported—of locally manufactured oil and gas exploration and drilling equipment. Petrochemical manufacturers have invested $35 billion in manufacturing and export capability in Houston in the last three years. With Texas responsible for half the projected growth in U.S. oil production, shippers anticipate exports through Houston to double or triple in coming years.
Port of San Diego
For decades, San Diego has strategically pursued niche cargoes such as automobiles, refrigerated fruit and bulk cargoes. In 2003, the port added break-bulk to the mix and tripled its volume. In 2013, export cargo valued at nearly $80 million was concentrated in oil and gas equipment, automobiles, heavy machinery, chemicals, refrigerated fruit, boxboard, soda ash, windmill components and project cargo. The port’s maritime facilities include two cargo terminals and the largest on-dock cold storage facility on the West Coast. Three major highways serve the port as do the BNSF and San Diego & Imperial Valley railways.
Port of Hueneme
Halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara lies Port Hueneme, a facility which has carved a niche handling vehicles and RO/RO equipment. Although exports of passenger vehicles through the port have fallen this year, exports of citrus fruit, industrial equipment and fabrics all rose. Other exports handled by Port Hueneme include machines and parts, frozen vegetables, paper and paperboard scrap, commercial vehicles and worn clothing and textiles.
Port of San Francisco
The centerpiece of San Francisco’s break-bulk offering is Pier 80, a 69-acre general cargo terminal that includes on-dock sheds and 200,000 square feet of covered storage. The shipping lines Star Shipping, Saga Forest Carriers, Oleendorff Carriers and Gearbulk all call on the terminal. The port has extended a rail line to the Pier 80 dock.
Port of Stockton
Sitting upriver from Oakland in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Stockton’s exports totaled 56 percent of the total tonnage it handled in 2014. Historically handling the region’s agricultural exports, iron ore exports from Utah to China emerged as a growth area in recent years. Exports of minerals, cement, steel and renewable fuels are expected to sustain the port in coming years. Port of Stockton has expanded, and continues to expand, its rail capacity.
Port of Portland
Port of Portland, Oregon, has traditionally specialized in exports, especially of minerals and grain, thanks to its excellent rail connections. Located eight hours up the Columbia River, the port does not sit at the center of a huge consumer market. But it does have direct access to two Class I railroads, both of which are on-dock, making it ideal for exporting. The Port of Portland’s break-bulk business revolves primarily around steel slab, rail, coil and forest products.
Port of Tacoma
Tacoma’s RO/RO niche is driven by two major liner carriers which carry exports of Caterpillar, John Deere and New Holland equipment. The Washington port’s infrastructure includes an 1,800-foot berth, 22 acres for staging and receiving, and 100,000 square feet of covered storage.