Port director sees opportunities for Milwaukee to be a logistics relief valve

Trucks line up to deliver agricultural products to the privately-operated Cofco International grain elevator in the Milwaukee harbor.
Trucks line up to deliver agricultural products to the privately-operated Cofco International grain elevator in the Milwaukee harbor.

Last updated on October 20th, 2021 at 01:00 pm

It is hard to look at pictures of container congestion at West Coast ports and not wonder what it will take for the nation’s tangled supply chain to return some sense of normalcy.

While many Wisconsin businesses are familiar with the problems caused by supply chain delays in recent months, the issues are also reaching Port Milwaukee.

Adam Tindall-Schlicht, director of Port Milwaukee, said the port is dealing with congestion and backlog of its own, particularly in the dry bulk and breakbulk shipping sectors.

One of the main issues is the availability of containers. Tindall-Schlicht pointed out that the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are responsible for around 40% of the containers coming into the U.S. Issues and delays for containers coming into the country creates problems throughout the logistics system.

Even with some of its own challenges, Tindall-Schlicht said Port Milwaukee and other medium-sized ports have existing capacity and “stand at the ready” to be a relief valve for congestion at the country’s larger ports.

However, providing that relief wouldn’t be as simple as sending ships from the West Coast down and through the Panama Canal, up to the St. Lawrence Seaway and eventually to Milwaukee.

For starters, the handysize ships that can navigate the seaway to get into the Great Lakes are much smaller than many of the container ships currently waiting to unload on the West Coast. Plus, making that journey would come with its own costs and fuel.

For the ships that could make it to Milwaukee there is another issue. The port is not currently approved by U.S. Customs to handle containers via direct maritime import. Only the Port of Cleveland has that approval currently among Great Lakes ports.

But Tindall-Schlicht said the federal government could make some kind of temporary allowance to allow for ports like Milwaukee to handle containers.

“We have that capacity here to be a relief artery for those very congested ports where vessels are waiting or days if not weeks in order to offload key commodities that are really backlogged in reaching the North American market,” Tindall-Schlicht said, noting it would require a commitment from the port’s private sector partners and customers but adding there is a desire “to be of use” in dealing with existing supply chain issues.

While the number of containers the port could potentially handle is much smaller than the size of the problem, Tindall-Schlicht said there is an opportunity in niche markets, especially for local companies struggling to get products or materials.

A more immediate option for shippers and customers might be to move cargo traditionally sent via containers into breakbulk shipping. Port Milwaukee is already approved to handle cargo imports via that method and Tindall-Schlicht said decontainerization would offer an easy, efficient solution, especially for products coming from western and northern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East.

The current supply chain and logistics challenges only highlight the loss of intermodal container service at Port Milwaukee in 2012. The port has engaged in efforts to convince railroads to bring the service back, but Tindall-Schlicht said the COVID-19 pandemic has created a barrier to those companies adding new projects or services.

At the same time, he said the pending merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern offers a bit of good news.

“Why I love this and I think this is a huge opportunity for our port and for the southeastern Wisconsin region and those businesses that work with CP is this will be the first true USMCA rail line connecting Mexico, the heartland of the United State and Canada via a north-south Class I rail route and that rail route will go through Port Milwaukee,” Tindall-Schlicht said.

He added the merger could be a catalyst for new business, including the potential return of intermodal service to the port.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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