GULFPORT — Mississippi leaders are questioning whether the Port of Gulfport is doing enough to capitalize on $570 million in federal money being spent there in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Port officials told a community group Tuesday that the port is not close to deepening its 36-foot ship channel, one of the shallowest among major Gulf of Mexico harbors.
In Katrina’s aftermath, then-Gov. Haley Barbour often pitched a “port of the future” that could include a 50-foot-deep shipping channel to lure mammoth ships sailing through an expanded Panama Canal. But money to improve the port does not include dredging a deeper channel.
Many leaders seemed surprised by the statement. Both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told The Associated Press yesterday they want more information on port plans.
Executive director Don Allee said dredging to 50 feet is not in the plans because the rest of the port is too small to handle the largest container ships that would need the deepest channel. He said the port is gathering information to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the channel to about 45 feet.
No U.S. port on the Gulf of Mexico currently has a 50-foot channel. New Orleans, Houston and Mobile, Ala., are among those with 45-foot channels. Pascagoula has a 42-foot channel.
Allee said Gulfport’s strategy calls for attracting ships displaced from larger ports by supersized container liners that need 50 feet of water.
“What we’re focusing on is really a stair-step effect,” he said in a phone interview.
Republican Bryant has asked that the Mississippi State Port Authority submit a report on its progress by July 31. The five-member board that oversees the port includes three gubernatorial appointees. The Mississippi Development Authority, which administers the federal money, is also under the governor’s control.
Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said that the governor “has stated many times that he wants to see a serious push to get the port expansion completed, especially when more than $500 million in taxpayer money is being used. This project is enormously important to south Mississippi and the entire state, and Gov. Bryant wants to see it move forward at an aggressive pace and with sense of urgency.”
Calling the port a “valuable asset not just for the coast but for the entire state,” Republican Reeves was also critical of the scaled-back plan.
“We can’t allow the apparent short-sightedness of a few individuals to weaken our long-term economic growth prospects,” Reeves said in a statement.
Using federal community development block grants to pay for port improvements was controversial, with critics saying the money should instead improve housing on the coast. Such money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can be used for economic development projects, as long as it creates jobs for low-income and moderate-income residents. Barbour, also a Republican, said that was a better use of the money, despite attacks.
Local critics continue to fight the port expansion plan. They say a planned access road from the port to Interstate 10 will hurt a predominantly black part of Gulfport and will ruin environmentally sensitive wetlands. The road, which would take trucks off already-congested U.S. 49, is considered a key to future port growth.
Roberta Avila, executive director of the Steps Coalition, said attracting more and larger ships were crucial to the job figures used to justify the spending. The coalition is an umbrella organization of other community groups.
“No deepening of the channel means there won’t be the job creation numbers they had used to justify expanding the port,” Avila said.
Allee said the port believes the work it’s now doing, even without a deeper channel, would add another 1,200 direct jobs to the 1,200 already supported by port activity. The port counts not only dock workers, but transportation workers and shipping industry support companies in its direct job totals. He said port is trying to “maximize” the return on the $570 million.
“There is a positive return even if we stay at 36 feet, even for the next decade and a half,” Allee said. “It is in our best interest to create a facility that will actually create a need for 45 feet.”