INSIGHTS: Dennis Wilmsmeyer, Executive Director, America's Central Port

Dennis Wilmsmeyer was appointed Executive Director at America’s Central Port on July 1, 2010, prior to which he served 11 years with the Port District, six as General Manager.

With over 30 years of experience, Dennis brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table in the areas of transportation, planning, and economic development. His responsibilities include developing the Port’s 1,200-acre industrial park and business campus, redeveloping a former military logistics center, marketing the many benefits of river, rail, and road transportation, the Port and its numerous tenants, attracting new tenants to the property, and managing day-to-day operations.

Wilmsmeyer unselfishly credits the enormous success of the Port’s growth and development to a dedicated team of 40 employees and 7 board members all working toward a common goal of bringing business to Southwestern Illinois. That said; his prior experiences serving as an Aviation Planner at East-West Gateway Council of Governments and for the Kansas City (MO) Aviation Department, as well as time spent as Project Manager for Ramsey-Schilling Consulting Group has also served ACP well.

Active in the ports community, he is Past President & Chairman of Inland Rivers Ports & Terminals Association (IRPT), a Member of the USDOT Marine Transportation, a former board member of the National Waterways Conference and a current member of IRPT and many other industry affiliations too numerous to list here.

Today, Wilmsmeyer and his ACP sit at the heart of the U.S. inland waterways equation, celebrating enormous growth, but also anticipating even more. Today, America's Central Port sees $1.1 billion in freight annually across its docks and waterways. The gateway known as the 8.4 mile man-made Chain of Rocks Canal, connecting Minneapolis to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, was developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Without it, the Mississippi River would not be the strategic asset it is today, nor would America's Central Port be celebrating its 60th anniversary.

From the acquisition of a U.S. Army service and logistics center, to the construction of a $50 million inter-modal harbor and almost 30 miles of rail, to re-branding as America's Central Port, a lot has changed over the last 60 years. The mission however has remained the same. Since its inception, the Port has continued to play its role as a key economic driver, promoting advanced manufacturing, job growth, and enhanced transportation for the region. Dennis Wilmsmeyer aims to keep it that way. Listen in this month as he weighs in on the state of America’s inland waterways, and all that awaits its many stakeholders, just around the next bend in the river.

The Maritime Administration predicts the U.S. will need to move an additional 14 billion tons of cargo by 2050 to accommodate population growth. Is the federal government – specifically Marad and the USACE – doing enough to promote, improve and maintain inland river infrastructure today?
Yes. I think Marad has done a great job in helping encourage the development of Port infrastructure due to an increase in global freight traffic and a need to push port development. The unfortunate thing is the Locks and Dam system was built all at once, thus things tend to break all at once too.  Sequentially and over time, fixes are what’s needed, but it is definitely a challenge that can be overcome.

America’s Central Port is involved in the intermodal movement of goods. Tell us about today’s activities and cargo volumes, and what’s planned for the future?
The port and its operators handles about 3 million tons of product each year, valued at $1.1 Billion. Keep in mind, though, “intermodal” normally pertains to containers, something we are capable of at the Madison Harbor, but are not currently doing or is included in the above stats. You can instead say “multimodal.” Growth into the future would include investments in additional rail and barge connections to grow that volume.

The St. Louis Regional Freightway, Port of Plaquemines and St. Louis Regional Ports have all signed an agreement to Foster Economic Growth on the Mississippi River. The pact is intended to help support the development of a new transportation link for cargo to move along the Mississippi River. What does that MOU entail?
 The MOU is intended to allow the St. Louis region to work closely with the Port of Plaquemines to foster container movement on the river. This will lead to a series of meetings to determining cargoes, and where the Ports may be currently deficient in any container handling capacity.

With so many individual ports involved in this MOU, how difficult is it to keep such a diverse coalition together and focused on a common goal?
With a shared economic development vision for the region, one that puts an emphasis on enhancing transportation infrastructure and bringing jobs to the region, the Ports in the St. Louis region are all working towards container growth on the river.

The MOU hopes to grow an alliance to generate new business by promoting international and inland trade routes at strategic locations along the Mississippi River. The agreement also calls for the exchange of data to further those goals. What sort of useful data has been generated and shared, to date?
A study was recently completed that looked at the potential for containerizing agricultural products for export. Click: HERE to read the report.

It is a fact that any transport mode is only as efficient as the one that immediately precedes or follows it. Knowing that, what’s happening at America’s Central Port – and beyond – that will make our inland rivers more efficient? Talk about class I rail, barge transfer and road access development.
The Port has invested an average of $1 million a year in rail enhancement (spurs and additional track for capacity). Looking ahead, other projects include renovations to a 6,500 square foot former steam plant, a 42,000 square foot former U.S. Army locomotive maintenance bay, and the addition of a rail spur and dump pit for a harbor bulk storage building. These improvements come at a total project cost of $3,270,000 with an estimated start date of Summer 2019 (Granting agency: EDA). Separately, Granite City Harbor Dock Surface Improvements will make last mile trans-loading more efficient at this particular harbor. This project comes at total project cost of $1,367,130 with an estimated start date of Summer 2019 (Granting agency: IDOT). Additionally, a new Right-in/Right-out Highway entrance to the Port will be built. Costing about $2,000,000, that project kicks off in the Summer of 2020 (Granting agency: IDOT).

In terms of inland – and indeed intermodal cargo / freight volumes and tonnage – where does America’s Central Port rank today in terms of its closest peers? What are your ultimate goals?
We have the capacity to do intermodal, but currently do not. Moving 3 million tons of goods annually, America’s Central Port is listed with all other St. Louis area ports as the Port of Metropolitan St. Louis, and is ranked as the most efficient Port in the country, and third largest in terms of tonnage alone.

Is there any sort of estimate of just how many trucks can [potentially] be removed from Interstate highways – along with the associated reduction in NOx, SOx and particulate matter – if the Mississippi container on vessel effort proves sustainable?
We do not have a study to reference, nor do we have specifics to the NOx, or SOx, but we do have data on fuel efficiency. Water transportation is the most energy-efficient and cost-effective method for moving freight.

More than $200 million has been invested in your region’s agricultural product barge transfer infrastructure facilities since 2005. How much of that occurred at America’s Central Port? What does that spend entail?
About a quarter ($50 million) was spent here on a new intermodal Madison Harbor and 3 rail loop tracks totaling about 5 miles of rail to support efficient harbor loading and unloading.

China over time became a large buyer of soybeans with 35 percent of soybeans grown in the United States being exported to China. The tariffs have taken a bite out of that volume. But, farmers have also found other venues, yes? What’s the status of all of that today? How much has the trade war impacted the region?
There has been a decrease in the amount of soybeans we’ve seen, and there’s no telling where the trade talks will go with China, but we think 2019 will be a good year for trade overall.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “Those of us trying to get a piece of the projected growth in freight volumes need to get creative. Freight needs to find the lowest cost alternative, and the containerization of various products, ranging from tires and scrap metal to agriculture products, such as specialized soybeans, is part of the solution.” Tell me a little about your port’s creativity to garner more freight share.
Our focus has been in enhancing the region’s transportation infrastructure, pursuing opportunities that improve river, rail, and road capabilities. This includes the $50 Million Madison Harbor, five miles of Rail installed to serve it and access for tenants across the Port property. In terms of rail, we continue to add to serve warehouses and sites on our 1,200 acre property, such as the 1,500 foot spur constructed in 2018 to enhance the value of a 60 acre-development ready site.

Mary Lamie, Executive Director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway, has said, “The key to success is going to be the integration of all modes of transportation and building partnerships to jointly create the volume needed to support this new option to transport freight.” But, it is also true that domestic train operators and trucking haven’t always been receptive to intermodal sharing and indeed, each have powerful lobbies on the Hill to make sure they don’t lose their footprint. Would you say that locally, this relationship is developing the necessary symbiotic chemistry?
 Yes. In order to make the region a central hub for transportation and logistics, all modes of freight have to work together. With rising global populations, trends suggesting denser cities, and an overall growing demand for food, fiber, and energy, the need for smart integrated transportation networks will continue to move forward. Add to this the current workforce shortage trends and stricter restrictions in the trucking industry, as well as the opportunity to attract manufacturers and the companies that support their supply chains to the region, helping increase freight traffic as a whole, there are multiple economic forces encouraging collaboration.

The opening of the Olmsted Locks was heralded as one the most important infrastructure accomplishments of all time on U.S. inland rivers. From your position at America’s Central Port, has its opening impacted your operations (yet) in any way?
Not substantially. Since it’s on the Ohio River, it doesn’t impact much on the Mississippi, north of the confluence.

Project cargoes, specifically related to Midwest refinery building and expansion, are increasing the use of inland waterways for project cargoes. Is America’s Central Port involved with this in any way?
We have handled project cargo, but are not currently. Although we are not currently working on any now, we have in the past worked with a coke plant that serves the US Steel Mill.

This article first appeared in the May print edition of MarineNews magazine. 

Marine News Magazine, page 16,  May 2019

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