Industrial ports are evolving and growing, even as waterfront redevelopment opens rivers to the public


    Public river access is increasingly important on urban waterfronts. But industry still thrives there, too. It’s evolving and, in some cities, growing again.

    Rob Walters, a riverkeeper, launched his boat across from a staging area for barges on the Monongahela River, about 20 miles upriver from Pittsburgh’s downtown. His first mate, a Portuguese water dog named Rio — meaning river in Portuguese — whimpered in excitement. He counted about 30 barges before he turned on his boat’s engine and headed towards the city.

    “Usually the general rule of thumb is biggest boat wins. So the barges really are the rulers of the river,” he said as he navigated between the moving barges.

    Before too long, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke works came into view. U.S. Steel says it’s the largest coke works in the country and in aerial photos it takes up the entire crescent of land that lies in this bend of the Mon River. “My jaw drops every time,” Walters said.

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    The Clairton plant is part of the Mon Valley Works, a steelmaking operation along the Monongahela River. The various facilities along the riverbanks, as well the barges themselves, are a good reminder of just how industrial the rivers and their banks used to be. But just as other plants in the region have closed, the Mon Valley Works has shrunk. Today, the prior extent of industry’s reach can be easy to forget when bicycling along one of the relatively new riverside trails in Pittsburgh or hanging out at Point State Park downtown. Still, they’re not just reminders, they’re active industrial strongholds in the region.

    The other two major ports in the state, in Erie and Philadelphia, are also important industrial assets to their cities.

    Public river access and recreation are becoming more important on urban waterfronts. But industry still thrives on the water, too. It’s evolving and, actually, in some cities, growing again.


    The Port of Pittsburgh is the second largest inland port in the U.S. The majority of what moves down Pittsburgh’s rivers is coal. In 2012, almost 26 million tons of it passed through the port. The number of tons of coal coming through Pittsburgh, though, has been dropping.

    Toby Fauver, Pennsylvania’s Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation, said the state and the Port of Pittsburgh Commission are working on a strategic plan to replace the tons of coal with other products.

    So far, the port has seen increased Marcellus shale related cargo, like drilling materials and natural gas byproducts. The Coast Guard is considering allowing the movement of fracking waste by barge. Fauver said these could be short-term increases, corresponding to the Marcellus shale boom. Whether it becomes a long-term boon to the port area will depend on how the market develops, Fauver said.

    Meanwhile, the port commission is exploring other markets: wood and steel products, liquid fuels, scrap metal. “We need to figure out what markets we can begin to grow and focus on,” Fauver said.

    Too, shippers have long toyed with the idea of transporting containers — the standard shipping method today — by barge. That would give the Pittsburgh port district more flexibility, but shippers have been slow to try it.  

    Pittsburgh’s port — made up of 200 privately-owned terminals — has an additional challenge: the lock and dam system is old and in poor shape.

    All that makes the future of the Port of Pittsburgh somewhat uncertain, even while it continues to move millions of tons of cargo and support more than 40,000 jobs.

    It’s a different story at the ports of and Erie and Philadelphia.


    The port of Erie is the smallest major port in the Commonwealth. It handles gravel, stone, road salt, sand, and things like locomotives, from a nearby General Electric plant. It’s also home to a $42 million shipbuilding industry.

    At the same time, the port facilities sit side by side with other amenities.

    There’s a convention center, recreational boat slips, a fishing pier, and restaurants along the waterfront. “It’s a great tourist and recreational area and right beside all of that is an American ship builder and the ability to bring in and offload cargo,” Fauver said.

    It’s the state’s most visual marriage of industrial and recreational opportunities on the water. And, Fauver said, the port is getting busier.


    In Philadelphia, the Delaware River ports are more hidden from the main water recreation spots in the city. Overall, containerized cargo has more than doubled at the port of Philadelphia since 2005, and the port has seen double-digit tonnage growth for the past five years. Part of that is recovery from the recession, but other factors are contributing to the growth, too.

    Refineries in and around Philadelphia are seeing more fossil fuels from the Bakken and Marcellus shale plays. That business has turned the region into a net-exporter of energy, said Dennis Rochford, President of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay.

    Too, the port has taken advantage of labor disputes at West coast ports and has accommodated ships unable to get into other congested, East coast ports. It’s also been able to benefit from niche markets, like cars, machinery and farm equipment, and has used its extensive refrigerated storage facilities to bring in things like fruit. Warehousing has grown in Eastern Pennsylvania and the vast storage spaces in New Jersey are equidistant from the Philadelphia and New York ports, which could help attract new ships.  

    And the port is planning to expand.

    The planned Southport facility – it will likely focus on containers, but could include space for cars and an energy terminal – is expected to support thousands of new jobs. It will be the first expansion since the 1970s, and timely: the deepening of the Delaware River should be completed in 2017, allowing larger ships to come in to port.

    If the region continues to be an energy hub, there’s hope manufacturing firms will establish roots here, too.

    Like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia has aging infrastructure. Philadelphia City Controller, Alan Butkovitz, has called the cargo-yard organization “antiquated,” and wrote in a recent report that some of the cranes operating at the port are unable to unload large, modern ships. The report says the storage that gave Philadelphia an advantage in a pre-container shipping era, has not kept up with the times.      

    Freight on water

    The ports’ success — and in Pittsburgh’s case, uncertainty — is driven primarily by market forces. While water shipping is often the cheapest option, water routes do not connect all points, like roads do, and barges and ships move slower than trains or trucks. But the US Department of Transportation says while roads and rail are congested, waterways are underused.

    There’s a push to get more freight on the water.

    The America’s Marine Highway Program is working to create the conditions where the market will take advantage of water shipping more frequently. Scott Davies, Director of the Office of Marine Highways and Passenger Services, said that means finding the appropriate cargo and routes to target, but also doing demonstration projects that will show the shipping industry it’s worth investing in water transport once again. That includes things like new routes and connections, and container-on-barge demonstrations that could lead to new vessel designs.   

    According to a Maritime Administration report to Congress, “water services carried only 13 percent of the nation’s ton-miles of domestic freight in 2007 — down from more than 26 percent in 1965.”

    While the program is working on several projects — none are in Pennsylvania at this time — it’s unclear how effective it can be with only limited grant money at its disposal.

    “The biggest challenge is the high capital cost of developing new transportation alternatives, and with that higher capital cost there’s a lot of risk. And nobody wants to go out and build new vessels and stuff for a market that hasn’t exactly proven itself,” Davies said.

    The new with the old 

    All three cities are sprucing up their waterfronts for people to enjoy, but all three are also working to grow industry on their rivers.

    For Walters, the riverkeeper in Pittsburgh, accountability and responsibility from industrial operations are key to maintaining what he calls a fragile balance between the interests of industry and of those wanting to clean up and transform the rivers into recreational assets.

    Rochford said he doesn’t see a conflict between the traditional, industrial river uses and newer, people-focused development.

    “I think when people are out on the water in a recreational sense, whether it’s landside or on the water itself, seeing that commercial shipping activity, large cargo ships, the container ships, the tugs, the barges, is a part of the ambience and the attraction of being on the river,” he said.     

    As Philadelphia, Erie and Pittsburgh move forward with its new waterfront plans, its old waterfront is far from gone.






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