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State Port growing, poised for more with new I-10 connector

Gulfport — The Mississippi State Port is all about transportation, says executive director Don Allee. The port serves as a major hub for cargo entering and leaving a six to seven hundred mile area, a distance that’s considered a truck day.

“Gulfport is not the final destination for most of our inbound cargo. A great portion uses Interstate 10 and goes east and west,” he said. “Trucks can go anywhere from there. The majority of our cargo is delivered by truck, not rail or barge.”

Allee says the state port is in a position to serve two-thirds of the U.S., and that takes in a lot of metropolitan areas. “If we can get cargo to I-10 in a rapid and safe fashion, it can go anywhere in the U.S.,” he said. “Some days I feel we’re the port of Arkansas, Kentucky, Memphis and Chicago.”

The port director is pleased that the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) has plans underway to build a connector directly from I-10 to the port. MDOT executive director Butch Brown says the route, which will be designated I-310, will run from Wiggins on U.S. 49 to the port by way of Canal Road in Gulfport. It’s a $400- to $500-million project and will not be open before five years.

Delivery — as fast as possible

Allee focuses on a fast, direct link to I-10 from the port and sees the Wiggins version as an enhanced route. “We don’t tell MDOT how to do their planning, and we don’t care what it looks like,” he said. “We just have a positive objective of getting cargo delivered as quickly as possible. Any portion of a connector road going north is added value.”

He said the port is looking at a five-year strategic plan, and it would be great to have the new connector nearing completion at that time. “It would be very beneficial to the port and we would definitely use it as a sales tool,” he said. “We will continue to stay focused on container-based cargo because that’s our major niche. We’ve made a name in the last few years for that in North-South markets. We’ve had growth and will continue doing what we do best.”

The state port is primarily known for inbound perishable fruit, about 50% of the container traffic. For April, the latest month with available numbers, 3,000 out of 7,400 inbound containers carried fruit. Much of that fruit is bananas that need to be on the shelf for consumers in 24 hours.

“That cargo must be delivered quickly and that defines our area,” Allee said. “We also import a lot of apparel that does not have the same urgency but we still move it by truck.”

Dole, Chiquita and Crowley are the port’s main customers. All are growing steadily. Dole and Chiquita have grown at a rate of 5% to 8% per year the last seven or eight years. Crowley began with one ship per week and is now up to three ships per week.

Allee says the freight line is close to requiring four ships a week now.

“They keep signing yearly contracts. We try to assist all our customers so they grow and then we grow too,” he said. “The port’s success depends on their success.”

The Central American market is very vital and active now, and Allee says the state port will try to keep growing that market. Guatemala and Honduras are key players in that market with El Salvador and Nicaragua coming on strong.

“We like that market and the free trade agreement,” Allee said. “We will try to keep growing it. More cargo generates more jobs and the port has done that in its 100-year history.”

The port employs 55 people, but he says the real job impact comes from the residual jobs it creates for truckers, vendors, stevedores, and others.

The 60-acre West terminal expansion underway is about 55% complete and is on schedule for completion next spring. Allee says the project may beat that deadline by a month or two although he is mindful of the June to November hurricane season just beginning.

A redesigned entry to get trucks in and out seamlessly without interrupting the traffic flow is also in the works.

“We will have more cargo and more transportation issues so we’re trying to balance our growth,” he said. “Our mission is to grow the amount of business, but we don’t want to create bottlenecks or interfere with Coast traffic. We’re doing things to be aware of that.”

Considering security issues

Allee said trucks must be moved quickly and safely while maintaining increasing security precautions that weren’t a concern 10 years ago. “We have demands now that we didn’t have prior to 9/11,” he said. “These security demands must be taken into consideration as part of the expansion and they must be more sophisticated now.”

Increased security issues will be handled through a new command and control center financed by a federal homeland security grant. Allee says the system will be greatly automated and will include a mobile x-ray machine to inspect cargo.

The port moved more than 200,000 containers in 2004 to maintain its position as the third busiest port in the Gulf of Mexico, behind Houston and New Orleans. “We compete with some giants in a very competitive environment,” Allee said. “We have the other ports on our heels vying for our number three position. This year we will keep growing, providing great facilities and level of customer satisfaction that has made us grow.”

The director praised the port commission and staff for their hard work and efforts to spur that growth.

“We will keep our fingers crossed for no problems this hurricane season and have good planning,” he added. “In the meantime, we’re open for business.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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