COVID-19

Between pipeline shutdown and bridge closure, it’s “one thing after another” in the barge business

Kai Ryssdal and Andie Corban May 20, 2021
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An empty gas station in Arlington, Virginia last week. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
COVID-19

Between pipeline shutdown and bridge closure, it’s “one thing after another” in the barge business

Kai Ryssdal and Andie Corban May 20, 2021
Heard on:
An empty gas station in Arlington, Virginia last week. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
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Shipping delays have become one of the biggest economic stories of recent weeks. The Colonial Pipeline’s six-day shutdown last week caused gasoline shortages and price spikes. Around the same time, boats were not permitted to travel beneath the Hernando de Soto Bridge on the Mississippi River because inspectors found a crack. In light of recent events, “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Austin Golding, president of Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: I’m going to skip the typical first question of ‘How’s business?’ because I can only imagine it has been like a week and a half for you, with the pipeline shut down and with the bridge up near Memphis, must have been a mess for a guy running a barge company.

Austin Golding: It was a busy week, which was a real change from where we’ve been, you know, since the pandemic started. I tell you, though, you know, boats and barges typically come in whenever there is an upset like a hurricane or a pipeline outage. So we were happy to be there to answer the call.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I imagine you guys are a force multiplier in times like that. What was it like? I mean, when the pipeline shut down and when the bridge shut down, what happened at Golding Barge Line’s HQ?

Golding: Well, when the pipeline shut down, our phone lines lit up. So we were either helping the containment issue on the Gulf Coast or helping actually get finished product to the consumer on the national market and up into the Ohio River Basin.

Ryssdal: Yeah, and the bridge closure, you can do river traffic underneath, the bridge is still closed. But you know, even even river traffic was closed for a while?

Golding: Oh, as soon as we got barges loaded, ready to head north, the first boat out of the area got shut down with the bridge closure. It was just one thing after another. And I’m really hopeful that whatever game plan they have with that bridge doesn’t cause another closure down the road because it cut the country in half, it absolutely shut the river down. And in a matter of hours, we had hundreds of barges with all kinds of commodities stacked up on either side of it. It was probably a true example of how we’re way overdue for an infrastructure package in this country.

Ryssdal: Let’s talk about things improving. I don’t know how bad it got in your worst days at the company. But do you think you’re out of the woods? You going to make it through now, for sure?

Golding: I think we’re out of the woods, from a survival standpoint. But we are a long way from out of the woods when it comes to reinstating everything that we like to do here, meaning raises in the short term, full benefit packages being reinstated, being able to do all of our maintenance that we want to do. So we’re past survival mode, but now we need to start putting some of these creature comforts back into our cost structure. And that’ll happen, I hope, between now and the end of the year.

Ryssdal: Talk to me about labor for a second. I’m sure you pay attention to the job market and unemployment reports. What’s it like for you, as you’re trying to get deckhands and pilots and all of those things?

Golding: Well, it’s extremely difficult, I think, with unemployment-plus, and a lot of the stimulus [that’s] come out, people are on the sidelines. I know there’s a lot of debate about how much of an impact that’s had. I’m here to tell you that I was on a bunch of congressional calls this week with several of my contemporaries from across the country. And we were all singing the same tune. You know, mixed between anxiety about going back to work and having an option not to. I’ve really tried to keep a level head and not overreact to the fact that our applications are way down, because I know once everything is back to normal we’ll probably return to the same pace of applicant. At least, that’s my hope.

Ryssdal: Last thing, and then I’ll let you go. And a little bit, you know, a peak behind the curtain. We had to slide our interview a little bit because you were out doing a business meeting, I guess. What’s it like out there doing business meetings in person?

Golding: Well, I’m fully vaccinated and we are big time pro-vaccine. And once I put out there that we’re fully vaccinated and we’re complying with everything that the CDC and that the powers that be have suggested, we have had a lot of people, I think, be starved for a meeting. I think everybody’s pretty much Zoom-ed and Teams-ed to death. And if we’re gonna do volume business like we do, they want to look you in the eye and know who they’re doing business with, person to person. So I’ve been happy to get back out on the road and, yeah, I was actually out meeting with clients at large at a restaurant, fully vaccinated. So we’re doing our part for sure and promoting that as the healthy way to go about doing business at this point.

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