Transportation Opportunities

Container Shipments Down Drastically at Port of Lewiston

POL Container Shipments graphContainers shipped to ports on the lower Snake River are measured in TEUs, which means Twenty Foot Equivalent Units, a standard global measure for sea freight. What it means is that every 20 linear feet worth of loaded containers counts as a single TEU. The Port of Lewiston’s container shipments peaked in 1997 with 17,611 TEUs and have been on a long, steady slide ever since. In fact, the Port suspended 100 percent of its container traffic indefinitely in April 2015.

Click on the graph to the right to enlarge it. Data source: Port of Lewiston (portoflewiston.com). For more graphs, click on the below headline.


Tons Shipped through Ice Harbor Dam Trending Down

LSR Freight Transport graphIce Harbor Dam is lowermost of the four lower Snake River dams and therefore offers the best indication of the entire waterway’s economic viability. Shipping statistics from Ice Harbor indicate water-born commerce peaked on the lower Snake in 1995 and has been on a long, steady decline ever since.

Click on the graph to the right to enlarge it. Data source: Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (nww.usace.army.mil). For more graphs, click on the above headline.


In 1995 freight transportation on the lower Snake River peaked at 9.16 million tons. By 2000 that volume had dropped to 4.52 million tons, and in 2014 the lower Snake waterway transported only 2.8 million tons. Over the past 20 years the volume of freight transported on the lower Snake River has declined by 69 percent.

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses ton-miles to represent the value of a waterway for commercial navigation. A high use waterway produces 300-500 billion ton-miles each year. Any waterway under 0.5 billion ton-miles is considered a waterway of negligible use. The lower Snake River logs 0.3 billion ton-miles annually. If the river’s 2014 freight volume were to more than double, ton-miles would increase to 0.4, and the waterway would still remain in the negligible use category.
  • Since 2000, container-on-barge traffic on the lower Snake River has declined by 82 percent, with more than half of that decline occurring prior to the great recession, which commenced in fall 2008.
  • Major regional industries have abandoned barge shipping. For example, Clearwater Paper, Lewiston Idaho’s largest employer, is located 2 miles from the Port of Lewiston and exports paper and paperboard. Clearwater Paper now ships 95 to 100 percent of its product by truck and rail. With several large sawmills in the region, the Port of Lewiston has not shipped any lumber for at least seven years.
  • Beginning with the 2002 Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report, all projections of future levels of freight volume on the lower Snake River have been vastly overstated. Even the 2009 Washington State Marine Cargo Forecast prediction of 0 percent growth from 2002-2030 has proven to be much too optimistic.
  • The cost of maintaining the lower Snake River waterway is growing rapidly. The Army Corps of Engineers recently acknowledged an annual cost of $7.6-$12.6 million just for operations and maintenance of the waterway. In addition to normal maintenance and operations, and sediment management planning costs, dredging recently cost more than $23 million for the upper part of the Lower Granite pool, with more implementation costs to follow.
  • The Walla Walla District’s claim in its 2014 Lower Snake River sediment management plan that the lower Snake River waterway provides cost savings of $8.45 per ton is false. The Walla Walla District derived this figure from the 2002 Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report, which claimed a savings of $5.75 per ton, a figure based on an earlier study of shipping volumes on the deep draft section of the Columbia River downstream from Portland. The 2002 economic analysis of transportation on the lower Snake violated Corps guidance regarding the use of rates rather than costs and was based on a highly overstated projection of future freight volumes. The transportation economics part of the 2002 study was so flawed the Walla Walla District itself stated the results should not be used again without further refinement. The current use of this savings figure by ports and special interest organizations is unsubstantiated propaganda.  You can read more about it here.
  • A reanalysis of the 2002 Lower Snake River Juvenile Salmon Migration Feasibility Report demonstrates the Army Corps’ Walla Walla District underestimated the average annual cost of keeping the lower Snake River dams in place by a staggering $160.7 million.

The lower Snake River project is economically unjustifiable and fiscally unsustainable. In addition to direct taxpayer costs, the many benefits lost from maintaining this project—from vastly improved sports and commercial fisheries to alternate investment in a transportation system that can benefit a much wider range of businesses — make the early removal of the four lower Snake River dams imperative.