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Rendering of inland container vessels planned for the Mississippi River

A rendering of an inland container vessel which American Patriot Holdings LLC is developing for use on the Mississippi River. (HANDOUT)

Jefferson County’s port in Herculaneum could host in a few years a $100-million-plus hub for container cargo carried to and from the Gulf of Mexico by new river vessels faster and bigger than conventional barges.

That possibility was discussed Tuesday at the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the St. Louis Regional Freightway and four St. Louis area port agencies with a port authority in Plaquemines Parish, La.

The agreement involves joint marketing efforts and an exchange of data between the two Mississippi River regions.

Mary Lamie, the regional freightway’s executive director, said that no formal commitment had been made to build anything here but that the memorandum was “one of several milestones to help bring a large-scale port to the region.”

The new container vessels are planned by American Patriot Holdings LLC, a Miami-based company whose CEO, Sal Litrico, was among speakers at the signing.

He said the vessels would move container cargo for transfer to and from ships from the gulf using a planned terminal in Plaquemines Parish.

He said the river vessels, which have been designed and tested but have yet to be built, would be self-propelled and move at a top speed of 13 mph. In contrast, he said, barges that carry container cargo typically run at 4 to 5 mph.

He added that they could carry significantly more cargo than barges, which he said now carry relatively little container freight.

The goal, he said, is to take away business from ports on the West Coast. “This is all incremental, new-growth cargo” for the Mississippi, he said in an interview. “We’re very close to making this happen. We are waiting for some bankable contracts to help us go to the shipyards.”

Because the vessels are too large to get through the Mississippi River lock and dam system that starts north of St. Louis, officials said, the St. Louis area is a logical place to locate a loading and unloading hub, fed by rail, barge and truck.

Litrico said that of the local ports, his firm preferred Jefferson County because it’s south of the metro area’s bridges, which could cause clearance problems during high-water periods.

Litrico’s company also plans to build somewhat smaller container vessels that could get through the locks and also use tributaries such as the Missouri and Illinois rivers.

Neal Breitweiser, executive director of the Jefferson County Port Authority, said such an expansion could make the Herculaneum port as much as 10 times bigger than its current 18 acres. He said it would probably require a public-private partnership involving companies that operate port facilities.

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Mark Schlinkmann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.