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Moving goods and people depends on solid infrastructure

The state’s busiest water ports are located on the Gulf Coast — Pascagoula, Gulfport and Hancock County — yet the numbers of tonnage through the seaports vary widely.

The total tonnage of imports and exports through the Port of Pascagoula, the state’s largest, topped 30 million last year, and is up about 2% this year, said Jim Moak, director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) ports and waterways division. The primary imports include chemicals, forest products, bulk fish, rubber, crude oil and general cargo, while exports represent forest and paper products, bulk and bagged grains, machinery, vehicles, fertilizer, petroleum products, petro-chemicals, petroleum coke and general cargo.

The Port of Gulfport reported a total tonnage of 2.3 million for 2003, with 2004 tracking a 7% increase, said Don Allee, executive director and CEO of the Port of Gulfport. Bananas and other fruit, aluminum and forest products account for a majority of the imports, while containerized cargo, forest products and poultry-dominated frozen cargo represents most of the exports.

Last April, Kansas City Southern (KCS) Railway partnered with the Port of Gulfport on a five-year capital improvement project to improve 68 miles of track between Gulfport and Hattiesburg, where KCS connects with Norfolk Southern’s line between New Orleans and the Northeast, and with Canadian National-Illinois Central’s line to Jackson. The improvements would allow trains to increase travel speed from 25 miles per hour (mph) to 40 mph. The port handles about 8,000 rail cars annually.

“Under the terms, they had some very specific maintenance items we wanted them to do and they have been doing everything they said they would, and have spent $1.4 million in just the first year,” said Allee. “We’ve got four more years to go and we’ll see how successful it is.”

In 2001, Mississippi lawmakers authorized the sale of $40 million in bonds to buy the 68 miles of track from KCS and then upgrade the tracks, but during the analysis required to make the sale, KCS decided not to sell the railroad and instead opted to partner with the Port of Gulfport to begin separate capital improvement and maintenance programs.

The agreement quickly became part of the port’s updated 20-year master improvement plan, which began in 2003 and includes a $250 million, five-year, 84-acre expansion. Last January, the port’s new multipurpose Pier 7, which features dockside rail, opened to handle cargo from three new vessels. The pier now handles up to 1,000 pounds per square foot of heavy lift cargo.

In May 2002, construction began on the phase to increase port capacity by about 35%. About 60 acres will be added to the west terminal to make room for, among other things, existing Dole and Chiquita facilities. Scheduled for completion next year, the project will allow the port to increase its container volume.

“The dirt work alone is an $18 million capital improvement project,” said Allee. “It’s capacity we sorely need. There’s not a square inch of port land that’s not being used for something right now.”

In 2002, the port handled 154,486 containers, a 20% increase from the 129,020 boxes handled in 2001, and port officials estimated a 5% increase in 2003.

“By 2023, when all of the capital improvements have been made, we hope to be handling upward of 800,000 containers a year at Gulfport,” said Allee.

In 2003, the state’s third busiest seaport, Port Bienville in Hancock County, moved 538,683 tons of cargo, which included general cargo (honey, foodstuffs, furniture, textiles, newsprint, iron and steel) and coal and ore. Through July 2004, about 301,000 tons of the same types of cargo were moved through the port, compared to 332,664 tons during the same time period in 2003.

“Although down slightly from this time last year, we project a higher total tonnage this year due to increased shipments beginning in November,” said Mike Turner, economic development associate at the Hancock County Port & Harbor Commission.

In 2001, the Mississippi Legislature created the Multi-Modal Transportation Improvement Program to improve the state’s network of airports, water ports, railroads and transit systems in the state. Even though a total of 82 applications totaling $20.6 million for project improvements were received, only 46 applications totaling $5 million were fully or partially approved. They include:

• $1.9 million, or 38%, for water ports;

• $1.7 million, or 34%, for airports;

• $800,000, or 16%, for transit systems; and

• $600,000, or 12%, for rails.

For example, of the multi-modal funds requested for rails, $275,000 was approved of the $387,900 requested for track rehabilitation for Mississippian Railway in Itawamba County; $200,000 of $270,000 was approved for tie replacements for Mississippi Delta Railroad in Coahoma County; $95,000 of $207,607 was approved for emergency pipe replacement at the Port Bienville Railroad in Hancock County; and only $30,000 of $250,000 was approved for tie replacement for the Marion County Railroad Authority in Marion County.

“The funds being made available for the multi-modal program came as a result of studies that MDOT has done for the non-highway modes of transportation,” said Ray Balentine, director of intermodal planning for MDOT. “We identified the need for investment into our airports, water ports, public transit and publicly owned railroads. There had been no dedicated state funding into these modes to handle capital improvements that are needed. Through a combined effort of MDOT and the associations from the different modes, this bill was passed, but not funded. MDOT stepped up because of our belief in the importance of the other modes to our economy by taking a portion of our funding and partially funding the program.”

Another $5 million is being requested for multi-modal transportation improvements for fiscal 2006, said Balentine.

“The emphasis is how to better integrate the connectivity of all modes, including highways, so that goods and freight can be moved between destinations more efficiently,” said Steve Twedt, assistant district engineer of construction for MDOT.

Two high-profile projects on the Gulf Coast fit well with the state’s multi-modal transportation focus. The $300 million Canal Road Project is a new fully controlled access route, designated as State Route 601, which connects the Port of Gulfport to Interstate 10 at Canal Road. It would alleviate congestion on U.S. Highway 49 and facilitate the movement of freight via the port. Built in segments, the first segment would connect 30th Avenue near 28th Street in Gulfport to Canal Road at I-10.

A proposal is being considered to move the CSX rail line, the only line running east to west along the Gulf Coast, north of Interstate 10.

“This project is meant to improve the safety of the traveling public on the Gulf Coast, improve the efficiency of the rail service to the area, and help alleviate congestion at the many highway and railroad grade crossings that are along this line,” said Twedt. “We have an extremely high number of crossings along this corridor. Because the vehicular traffic volumes are so high, compounded with a high volume of train traffic, safety is an extremely high priority along this corridor.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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