Barge traffic at Minneapolis port could end

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2012 - 10:51 PM

Plan for an April closure could cost $2.1 million to $2.8 million and might help block Asian carp.

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Mayor R.T. Rybak is leading the charge to get rid of the port, calling it a redevelopment opportunity.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Minneapolis leaders are eager to do away with the city's rusting port in north Minneapolis, and a fish is giving them an excuse to move quickly.

City officials met Tuesday to discuss a plan that would cease all barging operations at the city's 50-year-old terminal on the Mississippi River by April 2013, reducing lock and dam activity downstream that provides a path for Asian carp into greater Minnesota. The plan, the most favored out of three presented to a City Council panel Tuesday, could cost between $2.1 million and $2.8 million and eliminate a dozen jobs.

Mayor R.T. Rybak is leading the charge to get rid of the port, noting that it's one of the nation's best urban redevelopment opportunities along the Mississippi riverfront. He thinks the 48-acre site, which now contains shipping equipment and piles of raw materials, should instead be "creating job potential and housing potential and recreation potential" as north Minneapolis' "front door on the Mississippi."

"Anybody who says we're moving too fast on this -- I think we're about a decade too slow," Rybak told the council's development committee. "The one raw material we have a lot of that should be stored on this site is studies of the upper river. We've studied this thing to death."

Companies bring a variety of materials, including fertilizer, coal, twine and asphalt, to the port in barges; about 135 of them traveled through the lock in 2011. The material is stored there and shipped out later by truck. A handful of other companies with similar facilities nearby also use the lock, including Aggregate Industries and Northern Metals.

For Asian carp watchers, the primary concern is the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam. The fewer vessels that travel through it, the less chance the fish have to swim upstream.

Members of Minnesota's congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would give the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the lock and dam, the authority to close it. But the legislation has not moved in Congress.

By owning a port that accepts barges, Council Member Cam Gordon said, "we are only encouraging [the locks and dams] to stay open longer. We don't control the locks and dams, but I think that we can make a difference and this is one step moving in that direction."

The city's agreement with its port operator, River Services Inc., expires in December 2014. But the council is now considering taking earlier action.

That proposal is not without controversy. Union representatives appeared at Tuesday's meeting to express concern about the loss of jobs, both from closing the port and possibly the lock itself. A Metropolitan Council report in July said closing the lock would eliminate about 72 jobs. The port employs a dozen people.

"These are not minimum-wage jobs. These are good jobs," said Jason George, with the International Union of Operating Engineers. "And right now, in this economy, anytime there's talk of any job elimination of any kind we're very concerned."

Rybak said union representatives are rightfully concerned about jobs, "but barging is not a long-term industry in the city of Minneapolis. It's just not going to be."

Stopping barges next year, but allowing companies to wind down their trucking activity will cost up to $1.5 million more than letting the contract expire in December 2014. Much of that money would go to disposing of tons of mud that the Army Corps dredges from the river every year to ensure it remains navigable. It would cost another $2.8 million to demolish structures on the site, according to a staff report.

Barge activity at the port accounted for about 9 percent of all commercial lockages in 2011. The most active user was Paradise Cruises, whose 961 trips represented about 64 percent of the commercial lockages. Through a rare veto of a Minneapolis Park Board decision, Rybak pressured Paradise to stop using the lock earlier this year. There were also 846 recreational lockages in 2011.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper

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