Indiana Ports to Launch First Lake Michigan Container Terminal

Groundbreaking project to establish all-water route for ocean vessels serving the Chicago area via the Great Lakes

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Ports of Indiana, the state’s 63-year-old port authority, is advancing plans to develop the first international sea cargo container terminal on Lake Michigan. This groundbreaking project aims to establish the only all-water container route for ocean vessels servicing the greater Chicago metropolitan area via the Great Lakes, marking a significant milestone in the region’s maritime logistics.

In June, the port commission approved the strategic initiative, authorizing the authority to proceed with the planning and development of container capabilities at Burns Harbor. This week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) endorsed the plan, agreeing to staff the new facility. This endorsement is a crucial step in the process of establishing the terminal and creating a new supply chain for international container shipments.

“This is a critical step in a long process to establish a container terminal at Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor and a new supply chain for international container shipments,” said Ports of Indiana CEO Jody Peacock. “Having an all-water container route into the Midwest could create transformational opportunities.”

Located approximately 40 miles southeast of Chicago, the Burns Harbor terminal is part of the 25th largest U.S. port, which handles 25 million tons of cargo annually. The port’s cargo includes steel, steel manufacturing, construction materials, and agricultural products. While the port currently handles containers, it lacks dedicated container facilities. With 75 acres of available land, including 35 acres near the dock wall, the port is well-positioned to expand.

CBP’s decision to staff a container cargo examination facility at Burns Harbor underscores the importance of the project. Ports of Indiana will be responsible for constructing the necessary infrastructure, including a CBP office, equipment, furnishings, and large-scale non-intrusive inspection equipment, as well as radiation portal monitors and security measures as specified by CBP.

“Great Lakes shipping is limited by a shorter shipping season and the use of smaller vessels, but the potential upside for handling containers is tremendous,” said Ryan McCoy, port director at Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor. “Allowing ocean carriers to start serving this market could diversify supply chains, avoid bottlenecks, and reduce the overall carbon footprint for shipping to and from the Midwest.”

Historically, Great Lakes ports have been underutilized for container shipping due to these seasonal and vessel size constraints. However, recent years have seen increased interest and investment in leveraging these inland waterways for global trade. Cleveland and Duluth currently handle container vessels, while Monroe, Michigan, is also seeking CBP approval. The addition of Burns Harbor to this network of container terminals is expected to enhance the logistical capabilities of the Great Lakes region, providing shippers with more options and flexibility.

The strategic importance of this project cannot be overstated. As global supply chains face unprecedented challenges, including congestion at major coastal ports and disruptions from geopolitical events, inland ports like Burns Harbor offer a valuable alternative. By creating a direct all-water route into the Midwest, the new terminal could alleviate some of the pressure on traditional shipping routes and provide a more sustainable option for moving goods.

The port’s plan includes building the necessary facilities in 2025, with the expectation of commencing ocean shipping operations in 2026. This timeline reflects the complexity of the project, which involves not only constructing physical infrastructure but also integrating it into existing global shipping networks.

As the Ports of Indiana embark on this ambitious project, they join a global trend of enhancing inland ports to support international trade. Similar initiatives can be seen in Europe and Asia, where inland container terminals have proven effective in reducing congestion, lowering transportation costs, and increasing the resilience of supply chains.

In conclusion, the development of the first international sea cargo container terminal on Lake Michigan represents a transformative opportunity for the region. By leveraging the strategic location of Burns Harbor and the connectivity offered by the Great Lakes, Ports of Indiana is poised to play a pivotal role in the future of maritime logistics in the United States. This project not only promises to enhance the economic vitality of the Midwest but also sets a precedent for innovative solutions in global supply chain management.

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