Scaled-back port plan offers chance of timely completion

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Published: November 2,2012

Tags: GULFPORT, Hurricane Katrina, Panama Canal, Port of Gulfport

Eager to shorten the time frame for upgrading and enlarging the Port of Gulfport, port commissioners last Tuesday agreed to scale back plans to elevate the West Pier to 25 feet as part of a $500 million-plus restoration and expansion of Mississippi’s main seaport.

The choice ahead is whether to elevate to 12 feet or 15 feet above sea level. That decision will be made at a port commission meeting on Nov. 8 that will include release of an analysis that recommends specific improvements, their costs and the time to complete them, said Lenny Sawyer, commission chair, in an interview after last Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think something really major was resolved today,” Sawyer said.

Commissioners previously settled on the 25-foot elevation as protection against a storm surge like that of 2005’s deadly Hurricane Katrina that knocked out 80 percent of the operational capacity of the port, which is situated directly on the gulf. Last Tuesday’s decision marked a rethinking of that position, with commissioners agreeing that a lower elevation, whether 12 feet or 15 feet, would afford adequate protection to port facilities.

The port is now at 11 feet above sea level.

A desire to put a revamped port back into operation sooner rather than later also drove the decision. The idea, Sawyer said, “was to move faster for jobs.”

Staff has been told “let’s get off that 25 feet and start looking at 12 to 15 feet and bring us a cost estimate back,” he added.

The project has federal funding of $570 million.

“The quicker we get the elevation completed we can go after these jobs,” Sawyer said.

Tenants at the port, including Dole and Chiquita, have been pressing for the scale back to 15 feet elevation and are eager to regain full operational capacity, according to Sawyer.

The chairman and longtime port commission member said that while the governing board has not specifically settled on 15 feet of elevation, he personally wants the 15. That elevation should be adequate to draw exporters who feel their freight will be safe from storm damage while awaiting shipment, he said.

At 15 feet, Gulfport’s port will be close to having the most elevation of all of the Gulf Coast ports, he said.

A 15-foot elevation has already been achieved for 37 acres of an 80-acre expansion that makes up a key part of plans for the revamped port. The 37 acres are in a six-month settling period and will be ready to be built on by March or April, according to Sawyer. The remaining acres should be ready for construction by the end of 2013, he said.

Completion of the elevation work on the expanded port area would position the port to seal a deal with a fourth major tenant to join Chiquita, Dole and Crowley Maritime, Sawyer said.

“Every day we have staff working” to recruit a prospective fourth tenant, preferably a high-volume container shipper, he added.

With the terminal expansion completed, port officials can turn their attention to preparing a 200-acre intermodal facility. “We’re in the process of analyzing and developing a plan for that,” Sawyer said, pointing to a key built-in advantage of the future intermodal yard: “It’s is on the mainline of the railroad going to Jackson,” he said, referring to the Kansas City Southern, which just completed an upgrade that allows it double stacking of its freight cars and the ability to reach speeds close to 50 mph.

The rail line is seen as a key link in a planned rail hub at Hattiesburg that will include a link-up with two other lines — Canadian National and BNSF. Port officials say the hub will transform the Port of Gulfport from a “rubber-on-the-road” port dependent on trucks to a an intermodal port with access to rail transport to Chicago and into Canada.

Further, an intermodal hub at Hattiesburg creates an opportunity for warehouse distribution centers operated by national retailers such as Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot and others, port officials say.

The port won’t lose its distinction as a “rubber-on-the-road” port entirely. Right of way has been cleared to extend State Road 601 a half-dozen or so miles from the port to Interstate 10, thus creating a port-connector that takes traffic off of US-49. “That’s a big element,” Sawyer said. “We need that road finished.”

Like other ports along the gulf and east coast, Mississippi’s seaport sees a freight bonanza ahead with completion of an expanded Panama Canal. Panama officials insist the expansion designed to double the amount of freight that passes through the canal will be completed by the end of 2014. Sawyer said his inspection of the work on trips to the canal zone lead him to believe 2016 is more realistic, which he said gives the port more time to prepare.

“I feel like if we can make a decision on Nov. 8… we can be way ahead of that (2016) schedule,” he said.

While the port’s limited channel depth of 36 feet will prevent it from accommodating the super-sized “post-Panamax” freighters that will come through the widened canal, the port plans to grab a sizeable share of the break-bulk business through a deepwater trans-shipment facility in Jamaica.

Through the Jamaica trans-ship port, break bulk cargo will be offloaded from ships from Asia and South America that have come through the canal and put on smaller freighters headed for Gulfport, Sawyer said.

Don Allee, the port’s soon-to-depart executive director, said in a 2011 interview that the strategy is to go for frequency over size. “I may want ships carrying 3,500 containers to come in four times a week instead of one ship (carrying 14,000 containers) coming in once a week,” he said.

More immediately, the job is to put the new development plan into place, Sawyer said. “We listened to our engineers and our staff. And most important, we listened to our tenants. They are saying, ‘Let’s get moving.’ They will be happy at 15 feet (elevation) or 12 feet. They just want to go to work.”

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