Economic Development and Lakeshore

Cross-lake shipping route to launch soon

Partners say marine highway from Wisconsin to Michigan could have $4M economic impact on Muskegon.

June 30, 2017
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Midwest highways may be a little less crowded this summer, thanks to a cargo-shipping route across Lake Michigan.

In lieu of sending freight trucks by land from Wisconsin through congested Chicago and up into Michigan — and vice versa — the new route will allow transit of goods from the Port of Milwaukee to the Port of Muskegon and back.

Les Brand, CEO of Grand Rapids-based logistics and transportation facilitator Supply Chain Solutions, announced the cross-lake shipping initiative at the Rail Supply Chain Summit 2017 in Chicago last month.

Brand said SCS and its partners secured Lake Michigan’s first marine highway designation from the U.S. Department of Transportation as an alternative to trucking goods through one of the busiest routes in the country, I-80/I-94.

“The marine highway designation … was sponsored by the Port of Milwaukee and Eco Ships,” Brand said. “It’s a big deal in terms of getting the initial service started.”

Newaygo-based Eco Ships will provide freight ships for the marine highway and will schedule the liner service.

Brand said the first crossing is planned for the end of August or early September, depending on when the ports can complete operational logistics, such as loading and unloading equipment.

The water pathway is expected to increase the speed of freight deliveries by a factor of four, Brand said.

“Seventeen knots is the fastest boat we can get that shortcuts the time across the lake,” he said. “If a driver is running up to Muskegon, he would typically spend the whole day on (the trip). With the marine highway, he can do four runs to Muskegon in a day. That’s a big advantage for Michigan shippers and for Wisconsin and Minnesota shippers.”

While the shipping initiative initially will launch from Muskegon’s Mart Dock, Brand said the plan is to eventually move operations into the site of the decommissioned B.C. Cobb power plant, which Consumers Energy sold to North Carolina-based Forsite Development this spring, pending Michigan Public Service Commission approval.

Consumers said in April that Forsite would demolish the plant within two years and convert it into a deep-water marine terminal.

“(Founder and President Tom McKittrick) at Forsite will develop the site; his plan is to work the port service into it, looking at food processing support and other things happening in Muskegon,” Brand said. “That’s an even bigger plan long term.”

Brand said Consumers hired SCS as a consultant before decommissioning the Cobb plant to help find a new use for the property with prime lake access.

“As we looked at a variety of different things and seeing what Muskegon was trying to do with being a logistics hub, reviving some of the port activities jumped off the page,” Brand said. “We looked into what the cost would be of shipping freight between Muskegon and Milwaukee.

“Eco Ships was also looking to provide on-demand service, so they will be the vessel operator.”

SCS will serve as the shipping agent, marketing the route and putting freight on the vessels.

Jon Van Wylen, co-founder of Eco Ships, said all parties expect to make a healthy profit off the cross-lake shipping route — and it will strengthen Muskegon’s workforce, as well.

“I would say just as a ballpark estimate, it will have roughly a $4-million impact on the community per vessel — including crew salaries and maintenance. Anything related to supporting the vessel operations would be part of that number.”

“As you add this service to the community, Jon needs to hire his crews to service the boats,” Brand said. “Some of that will happen in Muskegon.”

Brand said the cross-lake shipping route might eventually be used to transport shipping containers imported from Asia carrying automotive components or to export agricultural goods from Michigan to overseas via container shipping from port to port.

The Eco Ships vessels that initially will be used will hold truck trailers. To transport containers, Brand said a container ship will be needed that will hold 124 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

Regarding funding the initiative, Brand said the marine highway designation allows for federal funding, and Muskegon will apply for grants “down the road.” For now, the ports will use private funds.

“Milwaukee is pretty well set up for this now,” he said. “We’ll probably need to get grant and private money to help Muskegon.”

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