With the Mississippi River on the west, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway on the east, and the Gulf of Mexico on the south, there is water, water everywhere in Mississippi — but not enough infrastructure development at the state ports to adequately tap economic development opportunities.
That’s the conclusion of a recent port assessment study conducted for the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“We have 16 ports in the state, and every single one is underutilized,” says Dick Hall, chairman of the State Transportation Commission and Central District Highway Commissioner. “Some are non-competitive. We are doing a study to find out just what we need to do to make them competitive. We want to take a consistent approach to each of them so we can upgrade them all using the same criteria.”
Hall said the State Port at Gulfport wants to compete with the ports in Mobile, New Orleans and Tampa, but is hampered by infrastructure gaps. He said one of problems is that the rail between Hattiesburg and Gulfport is in poor condition.
The issue of improved rail service is just one that impacts the viability of the state’s ports. The State Transportation Commission will hear the results of a recent port assessment study conducted by the consulting firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc. at a meeting July 25 in Jackson.
Hall said he believes Mississippi’s economy can be enhanced by upgrading the 16 ports.
“We have a lot of opportunity,” he said. “Everything I read has said that Central and South America are going to be the coming market for imports and exports. No one is in a better situation than us to take advantage of that. But we can’t take advantage of it without the proper infrastructure.“
Hall said he wants to find out why landlocked Ohio exports more agricultural products than Mississippi.
“That’s not right,” he said. “Something is wrong.”
ALONG THE TENN-TOM
Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Authority administrator Don Waldon agrees that more could be done to take advantage of the trade and development opportunities represented by state waterways. He said that port development is largely left up to counties and the private sector.
“A lot of the needs that these ports are now facing to accommodate existing and future business require costly improvements that are well beyond the capabilities of the individual counties,” Waldon said. “I feel there is certainly justification for the state to take a much stronger and more aggressive role in water transportation which, historically, they have not done.”
Waldon also argues that water transportation has the best capability for taking care of expanded business and trade; water transportation has a lot more unused capacity to increase commerce and trade for the state than other transportation systems.
Waldon recently returned from a trip to Europe looking at some of more innovative barge transportation practices used there. European countries have established policies to divert more land- transported commerce to waterways because it is safer, decreases congestion on highways, and is more environmentally friendly.
“The countries in Europe, regrettably, are light years away from us in making the best use of water transportation,” he said.
COMPREHENSIVE PLAN NEEDED
Gary LaGrange, executive director, Mississippi State Port Authority at Gulfport, agrees that Mississippi needs a more comprehensive plan to support ports in the state.
“The 16 ports in Mississippi currently have little or no funds to rely on from the state,” LaGrange said. “If we are going to be expected to compete with Louisiana and Florida, then we need to get with the program and do some of the things that are recommended in the study including creation of a Mississippi State Ports Council for the purpose of manifesting continued improvements for the ports needed for the newer, fifth generation types of shipments that are going to be sailing on the high seas.”
LaGrange said that the State Port at Gulfport will probably need investments of up to $250 million in the next five or six years to be ready for continued economic development and job opportunities. He doesn’t expect all that money to come from the state, but advocates seed money from the state to allow them to leverage funds from Washington and perhaps also from private enterprise that benefits from the port.
“It’s all about leveraging,” LaGrange said. “It is all about easing the burden on any one entity that may be a stakeholder in the port itself. And, of course, why do all this? To create jobs, put people to work, boost the economy, allow merchandisers to sell more merchandise, allow manufacturers to manufacture more, and shippers to ship more.”
Jimmy Heidel, executive director, Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation, is another advocate of investing in state ports.
“As far as maintenance and upkeep, we are lagging behind neighboring states,” Heidel said. “We lag behind other neighboring states in infrastructure development. But funds are being made available by MDOT to help upgrade. We have plans to do that, and MDOT has pointed out things which give a plan to go by to justify more grants and bonds to upgrade.”
Vicksburg, which ships three million tons of cargo per year, is the state’s leading port on the Mississippi River. In September of this year the port plans to let bids for a $6-million project to widen the channel going into the port.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.