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Barge activity at the Port of Little Rock was flat in April compared with the same month a year ago -- in both instances affected by events beyond the port's control.

The port worked 51 barges and handled nearly 77,000 tons of cargo last month, according to LSI, the port's contract stevedore. In April 2019, LSI worked 50 barges and handled 77,000 tons of cargo.

The port had a banner year in 2019, but its April totals from that year were affected by flooding on the Arkansas River that halted river traffic for part of the month.

The two docks at the port worked 519 barges and handled 791,655 tons of cargo in 2019, which marked near-record levels of activity despite the port losing 59 days to the flooding. The totals were the third-highest in port history, eclipsed only by activity in 2018 and 2015.

The monthly totals left activity at the port nearly 20% off for the first four months of 2020 compared with the same period last year.

The port has worked 154 barges this year, 18% fewer than the 188 barges worked in the first four months of 2019. Cargo was similarly off, going from 286,000 tons to 233,000 tons, an 18.5% drop.

Rail activity at the port also was flat in April compared with a year ago with 573 rail cars switched. The total was below forecast, according to Bryan Day, the port's executive director. The port generates income for every rail car its crews handle.

Day expects the pandemic's economic effects to continue and barge activity will keep falling, unlike in 2019 when robust activity resumed once the waters receded.

"Last year, we had 80 barges at the port or almost to the port when the floods hit; we were lucky and had commodities on site to serve our customers as the water receded," Day said in an email Wednesday. "Also we attracted new customers that were unable to transport their goods all the way to the end of navigation [Tulsa]."

And because barge traffic is planned long in advance, the full impact of the pandemic has yet to be realized at the port, he said.

"This year as the virus hit in March and April, we had already been scheduled to receive those commodities and they were headed our way regardless of what was going on in the world," Day said. "For May and June, unfortunately, we will see a noticeable slowdown in tonnage and barges worked."

Barge traffic on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System similarly has been affected.

The system of which the Little Rock port is a part carried 919,552 tons of cargo in the first four months of 2020, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The total marks a 13% decline from the tonnage the system carried in the same period last year.

"I believe that manufacturing will remain strong and that the inland river is still a viable way to ship goods and commodities; however, 2020 will be a year that shows significant decrease in rail car usage and tonnage from the river," Day said.

Business on 05/21/2020

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