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Howard Swint: W.Va. must act now on Prichard, Interstate 73

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With the projected completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2015, West Virginia stands to capitalize on a golden economic opportunity, but only if lawmakers act now.

The canal expansion is a game-changer, both logistically and geographically, as post-Panamax containerships will soon have direct access to ports along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, as well as within the Gulf of Mexico.

And the economies of scale associated with these giant, ocean-going vessels stand to reorder the nation's supply-chain infrastructure as new competitive advantages will be created, not only within port cities but also along river, rail and highway transportation systems.

Simply put, maritime shipping is the most cost-effective means of shipping cargo but, at 25 knots, is slow steaming.

For time-sensitive goods that originate from Asia it is anticipated that Western ports will continue to be used, as rail and long-haul trucks can service Eastern markets in a more timely fashion.

But for virtually all other items, the logistics calculus will change in favor of those locations within the supply chain that can maximize water-borne efficiencies in conjunction with forward intermodal terminals, and that includes West Virginia.

According to the Pittsburgh Port Commission, a 15 container-on-barge tow can move as much bulk freight as 870 trucks with overwhelming environmental advantages.

Commercial barging helped make the Port of Huntington-Tristate the largest inland port in the United States and the 8th overall, in terms of tonnage.

The port's base operational area of the Ohio River includes not only the 90 miles of the Kanawha River, with arguably the most modern lock and dam system in the country, but also the commercially navigable nine miles of the Big Sandy River, a tiny stretch that could figure prominently into the overall logistics equation.

That's because of the Heartland Corridor project that has strategically positioned the soon-to-be completed Prichard Intermodal Facility on the Big Sandy in Wayne County for servicing double-stacked intermodal trains traveling from Virginia ports inland to the Midwest.

The project shortened the previous route by 200 miles by allowing for a more direct route through Southern West Virginia, saving considerable transportation time and costs.

But with the advent of the Panama Canal expansion the Prichard facility could prove to be at a significantly enhanced transportation crossroads if it also could service container-on-barge operations.

It would require a feasibility study and more public/private investment in the facility itself, along with perhaps the further dredging of the currently navigable section of the Big Sandy between Prichard and the confluence with the Ohio River.

And one more transportation enhancement could put the Prichard Intermodal Facility on the national overland map, and that's the completion of Interstate 73 from the facility to the junction of Interstate 64, even if it's just a spur route initially.

That's because the decision-making process by developers specializing in warehousing and distribution typically view direct interstate highway access as a sine qua non for site selection.

By making these improvements a priority, West Virginia could take away rail-borne business from the Heartland Terminal, near Columbus, Ohio, compete for river-borne business with the Port of Pittsburgh and, perhaps, strategically forestall the proposed development of a new intermodal facility in Virginia.

It would be yet another return on our massive investment in modern transportation infrastructure that could further diversify the state's economy -- the North Star for sustainable economic development.

The time to act is now.

Swint is a commercial property broker in Charleston and political activist.


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