Minnesota's go-to man on waterborne commerce to retire
Ask Dick Lambert about working the Mississippi River, and his eyes light up.
Ask him about the tonnage of freight shipped out of Minnesota each year through the ports of Duluth-Superior, Two Harbors, Silver Bay and Taconite Harbor, and he gleefully rattles off the total: more than 58 million tons of taconite, coal and grain.
Ask him about his retirement plans, and he'll talk about a reconnaissance mission to the Panama Canal via a Caribbean cruise with his wife.
Lambert, who is 78 and will retire Friday as the Minnesota Department of Transportation's director for ports and waterways, has spent more than 50 years working in waterway transportation. He might know more about commerce on navigable waterways in Minnesota than anyone else.
"His expertise -- with respect to both rivers and to the Great Lakes -- is going to be difficult to replace," said Tim Spencer, MnDOT's manager of freight and rail planning and program development. "He is the go-to guy here if there is any waterway issue or any issue involving any kind of roadway that crosses navigable waterways."
One of Lambert's major jobs each year is adding up how many tons of freight were shipped via Minnesota waters. It's staggering. Last year, more than $7 billion worth of goods went through ports on Lake Superior, and just short of $2 billion in goods moved on the Mississippi River.
Lambert can tell you exactly how many tons of aggregate, fertilizer, salt, cement, slag, caustic soda, steel and coal move north into Minnesota via the Mississippi each year and how many tons of grain, scrap iron, asphalt, potash, petroleum coke, frac sand, petroleum and DDGs (dried distillers' grains, the animal feed produced by U.S. ethanol plants) move south.
The biggest product moved on the Great Lakes is taconite out of Minnesota -- 37 million tons in 2013, down from 40 million tons in 2012. "But next year it might be up to 44 tons, depending on the needs of the steel mills," he said. "The second-greatest product moved on the Great Lakes is coal. The railroads bring low-sulfur coal in from the strip mines in Wyoming and bring it in to Duluth-Superior -- 15 million tons last year. It runs between 15 and 20 million."
Corn exports going down the river are down about one-third from a decade ago. The reason? "Minnesota is putting a lot of its corn into ethanol production," he said. "It's staying here."
More than 680,000 tons of salt came up the river to Minnesota in 2013. Most of the salt comes from the Cargill salt mines in Louisiana, and "we use it on our roads up here," he said. "MnDOT buys a couple of hundred thousand tons a year for our roads, and they use it for water softeners and all sorts of stuff."
Limestone and cement are brought in by barge from Davenport, Iowa. "We use a lot of limestone in making shingles for roofs," Lambert said. "CertainTeed in Shakopee uses 500,000 to 600,000 tons of limestone -- it's the granules you put on shingles -- and it's easier to ship stuff like that in 1,500- to 1,600-ton barge loads. It's a bulk product. Anything that moves in bulk has got a market on the river or in the Great Lakes."
Barge transit is inexpensive and environmentally friendly, according to Lambert.
"Waterways don't really compete with trucking," he said. "A truck will hold maybe 2,500 tons in a payload -- usually they say a truckload's efficiency is maybe 300 to 400 miles."
Working on the river
Lambert, who lives in Burnsville, started his career as a deckhand on a Mississippi River towboat while he was going to the University of Minnesota.
"It was a great place to work, especially if you were in school and needed to find something to do in the summertime," Lambert said. "It's great outdoor work -- you got a suntan by April -- and it's good physical labor. And on the boats, they feed you good meals. Sometimes you live on the towboats, and it was decent money and it was physical exercise ... because you're straining your brain all through the school year."
Lambert was offered the job by a cousin, who was general manager of Twin City Barge and Towing. When it was time to go back to school, he stayed on as a midnight-to-8 a.m. watchman on the harbor.
When Lambert graduated in 1957 with a major in Spanish and a minor in economics, he couldn't find a job in foreign trade. He worked for Twin City Barge for a few more years until he decided he had to use his college degree and took a job in RCA Whirlpool's engineering department on St. Paul's East Side.
But after a few months, his cousin called to tell him Twin City Barge was expanding and offered him another post. Lambert said he jumped at the chance to move into the office and learn dispatching.
He rose to vice president of the company's St. Paul operation and in 1993 was recruited to apply for the MnDOT job.
Lambert was responsible for administering the Minnesota Port Development Assistance Program, which in the past 18 years has funneled about $25 million to projects such as dock walls, storage facilities and access upgrades.
Lambert's love of waterways is in his blood. His grandfather, Col. George Lambert, played a key role in modernizing Upper Mississippi River navigation. He lobbied Congress to authorize a 9-foot-minimum-depth channel leading to the Mississippi River lock-and-dam system from St. Louis to St. Paul and Minneapolis. George Lambert also helped form the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, a trade association comprising shipping companies, barge lines and recreational marinas.
Greg Genz, president of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, worked for Dick Lambert at Twin City Barge when he was young. "I haven't had a whole lot of bosses in my life, but he was the best," Genz said. "I have never heard an unkind word about Dick in almost 50 years of knowing about him and knowing him."
Lambert was the point person in state government for the waterway transportation industry.
"We always knew we had someone who could go to bat for us," Genz said. "Dick knows a lot of people, and those people trust Dick. He has always been a man of his word."
Although he is retiring, Lambert has no plans to give up his interest in waterways.
His first post-retirement trip, a Caribbean cruise with his wife, Barbara, is just a ruse to allow him to research construction on the Panama Canal. Work on the canal is designed to double the capacity of the transoceanic route, and Lambert wants to see how it is going and report back to folks at MnDOT and the Duluth Port Authority.
"It's a scouting mission," he said. "The Panamanians are enlarging the canal to take the new big container ships. They're deeper draft, they're wider, they're longer than the ships right now. I wanted to see that while it was under construction."
He said he hopes the barge transportation industry continues to grow.
"The more products you can divert onto the waterways, it's going to be less congestion on our roadways in the metro area," he said. "We're only using waterways maybe 50 to 60 percent of their capacity -- whereas most of the time, our roadways are congested. If we can divert some of that new product or new tonnage requirements onto the waterways, it might reduce the wear and tear on our roadways.
"If you reduce congestion, the fewer accidents you have and the fewer deaths you have on the highways."
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.