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Could the Great Lakes and Detroit help alleviate the shipping logjams on the coast?

Posted at 8:40 AM, Nov 18, 2021

DETROIT (WXYZ) — The Port of Detroit handles manufacturing shipments; things like steel, cement, and petroleum products, which are down right now.

Executive Director of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority Mark Schrupp said the port's tonnage compared to pre-pandemic levels is down around 50 percent.

Given that, we asked in what capacity — if any — Detroit or other cities near the Great Lakes could be used to help ease the shipping logjam on the coasts.

Detroit's port is not equipped to handle those massive container vessels we've seen waiting off the coast of L.A., but that doesn't mean the Port of Detroit isn't looking long-term at ways it can expand its reach.

“We’re located next to two class-one railroads and three interstates. We could be a major inter-modal hub right here in southeast Michigan," Schrupp told 7 Action News.

He'd like to see the port grow as a regional fast lane to the Midwest. The Detroit River connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Given what's happening on the coasts right now with the shipping logjam, Schrupp is talking with port authorities in places in Cleveland, which, unlike Detroit, can house some container ships.

In terms of what we can do to help here in Detroit, logistically it's limited.

“The west coast ports, there probably isn’t much that we can do to alleviate that, but there are back-ups on the east coast," Schrupp said.

A more feasible possibility for regional vessels perhaps, but a direct fix to the international logjam? Likely not according to Professor Ravi Anupindi who teaches out supply chains at U of M's Ross School of Business.

“You could divert some of that coming to come into the East Coast ports through the Panama Canal, right? But that adds another 10-12 days," Anupindi told Action News.

Traffic coming directly from Asia would go to the west coast, and despite the U.S. being a massive consumer of commercial goods from Asia, our largest ports don't have near the capacity of those in other major countries. The Port of Los Angeles' latest capacity numbers didn't even land it in the top 10.

European shipments may be helped by the Great Lakes some, but likely in a more in-direct way.

Cleveland's Port, with its greater capacity, is allowing some ships waiting in line at the coast to unload there instead. But that's after millions in recent upgrades.

“If you focus on the holiday season right now, which is toys and clothing and gift-giving and all that stuff, 90 percent of those we import," Anupindi said, noting that most of those imports are coming from Asia.

It's another reason why he said U.S. port infrastructure is so critical; and perhaps this crisis is shining a spotlight as to why.

Most of the Port of Detroit's terminals are privately owned, around 30. Just one is public. Schrupp recently met with terminal owners to talk about the port's future.

“We’ve asked them to re-think how they use their riverfront properties not just importing the old steel and other products like that but look at ways of being more of a logistics hub," he said.

$17 billion from Pres. Biden's trillion-dollar infrastructure bill will go toward aging port infrastructure. Most are eyeing the major U.S. ports on the coasts closely, like the one in L.A.

Upgrades here in Detroit can and will happen, Schrupp said, but it will take time. A greater reach and expansion of imports and exports is a long-term goal, he said.

Prof. Anupindi expects it could take several more months or more before the backlogs at major U.S. ports subside.