DULUTH – As cargo ships wait their turn to unload containers at congested coastal hubs, leaders of the country's farthest-inland port have a better idea: Ship it to Duluth.

The Port of Duluth-Superior announced last week it can now handle "significantly larger" volumes of containers arriving on international vessels because of expanded permissions from the Department of Homeland Security.

That cargo won't arrive on any massive vessels stacked high with containers — such ships can't fit through the locks that connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean — but it offers new opportunities for shipping firms to get a little more out of their overseas journeys.

"We've been nurturing this potential for a while and we're excited to see it coming to fruition," said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "Considering the significant congestion and delays occurring at some coastal ports, we provide a fluid alternative for containers to move inland and bypass those coastal bottlenecks."

While cargo from Asian exporters has caused the most severe backups at West Coast docks — touching off price increases and product shortages nationwide — the East Coast has also seen longer waits to get goods off ships and onto trains and trucks, sending a ripple effect down the supply chain.

"A container moving into Duluth/Superior is unlikely to directly alleviate the problems in Southern California ports," said Richard Stewart, a transportation professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the director of the Transportation and Logistics Research Center. "But this could alleviate congestion that occurs on rail and highway routes moving to inland ports."

Until recently, only containers connected with other cargo — like electrical equipment for giant wind turbine blades — were allowed to be imported to Duluth. Now an overseas vessel could come fully loaded with 1,000 or more 20-foot containers. (To compare, the largest oceangoing vessels can carry more than 20,000 such containers.)

The real draw for shippers will be the ability to import and export in the same visit to the Port of Duluth-Superior.

"Everyone makes more money if there is cargo in the containers," Stewart said. "Bringing in a ship with nothing on it or leaving with nothing on it — any mode of transportation wants to avoid that. Plus you get many more environmental benefits when you reduce the number of trips you have to make."

The Port of Cleveland was previously the most inland port on the Great Lakes that could handle containers.

"We've already had some promising discussions with potential customers looking for this kind of maritime container service, so we feel good about the long-term outlook for this activity to and from Duluth," DeLuca said.

The container service has been decades in the making. It took a leap forward several years ago with the formation of Duluth Cargo Connect, a partnership between the Duluth Seaway Port Authority — a government entity that owns the Clure Public Marine Terminal — and Lake Superior Warehousing, which operates at the terminal.

"Whether the commodity is raw materials for manufacturing, finished goods, foodstuffs or other retail items ... we are well equipped to provide shippers with a seamless alternative," said Jonathan Lamb, president of Duluth Cargo Connect.

Stewart said the port is well situated for success with containers, given the "wonderful transportation system of interstate highways and Class 1 railroads that can bring cargo in and take cargo out."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496