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River Barges Are Back In Kansas City

Suzanne Hogan
On Tuesday, Aug. 18, one of first barges since 2007 was unloaded at the terminal in the West Bottoms.

Kansas City is a new destination for barge traffic again. For the first time since 2007, barges are docked and unloading cargo at the downtown terminal.

The port is in the West Bottoms near the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw River. Just a few weeks ago, it didn't look like there was any activity at the terminal. But today, it's busy with traffic as a crane steadily unloads mill scale, a steel byproduct  from the barge, and semi trucks pull in to load it up.

"We can actually say today that every freight transportation mode from water, air, rail and roadway is utilized in Kansas City," says Michael Collins, president of Port KC, formerly the Kansas City Port Authority. 

Port KC has been behind schedule from original projections to reopen last year when Kaw Valley Companies was named the terminal operator.

But despite the delay, Collins says he is optimistic that the terminal will still reach 2015 projections of 206,000 tons of inbound cargo. He says just in the past few days they've received more than 2,800 tons of cargo.

"The folks you see here are the first ones to jump in the water in the last eight years," says Collins pointing to a barge floating on the river. "Now we're looking at about four barges per month. We are trying to secure eight barges by next month." And Collins says he is forecasting 12 a month by next spring.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR
Bob Cartmill has been navigating the Missouri River for three years. He is based in Missouri and says the Missouri River, in particular, has some challenging parts to navigate.

Bob Cartmill is captain of the boat that towed the first barge. This is his third year navigating the Missouri River. He says that that the reopening of this port will open up more opportunities for him, but he says the job and the Missouri River at times can be very difficult.

"You get above Brunswick, Missouri, the river is a lot more stable. You've got better water to run in. The lower end you never know where it's going to fill in," says Cartmill. He admits some of the turns can be tough and if the barge is too heavy or you don't navigate the channel correctly you can hit the ground.

But Cartmill says  all of these things are just part of the job: "It kind of gets into your blood after the years."

Collins has heard the criticism that water levels on the Missouri River may not sustain all the barge traffic he's anticipating.

To that he says, "If you look at South America, some of their river levels are much lower than those on the Mississippi or the Missouri, and they ship just fine on the river system." 

Collins says the next big step is to move beyond barge to truck cargo flow to connect barge with rail. Negotiations of a nearly $3 million deal with Union Pacific to construct a railroad spur at the terminal is under way. Collins says they will begin engineering that facet of the project in September.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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