Top 20 US tonnage ports
This article is the second in a series by CPCS transport specialists on the current state of the US marine port system as the country deals with strained supply chains.
- The Port of Houston has surpassed the Port of South Louisiana as the largest tonnage port
- Many tonnage ports in the Gulf of Mexico, already among the largest in the country, have experienced substantial growth
- Tonnage ports on the East Coast, including Baltimore and Savannah, have also seen growth
- Port investments, including for modernization and expansion, are needed to meet increasing demand
We first examined the top 20 container ports in the US, while this article focuses on the top tonnage ports in the US.
Tonnage is a measure for bulk and non-containerized cargo. For its analysis, CPCS used publicly available data for the 2015-2019 period from the US Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) online Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center (WCSC). The data considered in this article focuses on trends preceding the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid statistical noise.
As the “Top 20 tonnage ports in 2019” map shows, the largest and growing ports by tonnage paints a different picture in terms of geography compared to the “Top 20 container ports in 2019” presented in the first article. Apart from the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Virginia, most other top tonnage ports are located along the Gulf of Mexico.
The port powerhouses in the Gulf
Port Houston is the largest port by tonnage in the US and the sixteenth largest in the world, handling almost 285 million tons of cargo in 2019. The Houston Ship Canal, which serves this port, is responsible for 3.2 million jobs and contributes more than $800 billion to the US economy.
Port Houston handles considerable amounts of chemicals, minerals, automotive parts, food and drink, machinery, appliances and electronics. However, the only growing commodity class at the port between 2015 and 2019 was “petroleum and petroleum products,” with all other commodity classes shrinking as a proportion of total traffic.
In July 2021, Panama’s president visited Port Houston, a symbol of the important connection between this port’s success and the Panama Canal. The canal’s recent capacity expansion has facilitated Port Houston’s recent growth. The port has also seen steady growth in traffic from Asia as importers seek alternatives to congested West Coast ports.
The Port of South Louisiana
The Port of South Louisiana covers 54 miles along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. As the second-largest port by tonnage in the US, it handled about 238 million tons of cargo in 2019 and averages more than 56,000 barges annually.
This activity is made possible by the port’s 45-foot channel and its strategic location, facilitating cargo transfers between trucks, rail, barges and ships. The port handles more than 50% of all US grain exports and is also the terminus for the nation’s only offshore oil “superport”, where six major oil and gas pipelines converge, conveying more than 1.1 million barrels of crude oil daily. The port’s two largest commodity classes are “food and farm products” and “petroleum and petroleum products.” Despite this, the port’s two largest commodity classes also rank among the fastest-declining commodity classes at the port between 2015 and 2019 as a percentage of total traffic. Formerly the largest port in the US by tonnage, volume handled at the Port of South Louisiana fell by more than 8% between 2015 and 2019, allowing Port Houston to overtake the first-place position.
The Port of Corpus Christi
The Port of Corpus Christi ranks fourth in terms of tonnage, handling large quantities of petroleum, feedstock, chemicals and minerals. It’s one of the largest crude oil exporters in the US, moving 314 million barrels in 2018. Unsurprisingly, “petroleum and petroleum products” is by far the port’s largest commodity class, encompassing nearly 86% of its total traffic. The port is close to I-37 and Highway 181 and has connections to three Class I railroads: BNSF, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific. The port saw growth between 2015 and 2019, with tonnage expanding by nearly 30%. This success does not appear to be slowing, as the port set new tonnage records in the first half of 2021 due to strong demand for energy during the COVID-19 recovery.
Another promising port on the East Coast
The Port of Baltimore
The Port of Baltimore has recently seen strong growth, with tonnage expanding by more than 12% between 2015 and 2019, making it the fourteenth largest port by tonnage in the US. The port’s central location is one its greatest assets. Baltimore lies between numerous population centers: Washington, D.C. to the South, New York to the North and the Midwest to the West.
Its prime location allows the port to be an overnight truck ride to about a third of both US manufacturers and the US population. The port is the largest in the nation for a range of commodities, including automobiles, light trucks, and farm and construction machinery.
To support continued growth, construction on Baltimore’s Howard Street Tunnel broke ground in 2021, which will accommodate double-stacked container trains by 2024.
We’re seeing impressive growth in container movements at US ports, and many of them are also experiencing comparable growth in tonnage, especially in the Gulf of Mexico.
Strategic investments, including modernization and expansion, are essential so that ports can continue handling a growing demand. After all, US ports are critical for both the movement of goods and the economy’s wellbeing.
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About the authors: Erika Witzke and Josiah Blackwell-Lipkind are US-focused transportation specialists and Tobin McGilligan is a senior data analyst at CPCS, a global management consulting firm specializing in transportation and energy.