Deeper ship channel stalled at Gulfport's state port

July 14, 2015
Associated Press

Gulfport's 36-foot ship channel serves two tenants that carry containerized cargo, Dole Fresh Fruit and Crowley. The port wants a deeper channel to serve bigger ships, but the process is long and costly.

But a deeper ship channel has been scrapped as part of a study on future expansion at the state port, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed.

Pat Robbins, a Corps spokesman in Mobile, told The Sun Herald channel deepening was removed from the study because port officials learned the state would have to pay the entire cost for the deeper channel, plus cover perpetual maintenance, because Congress did not authorize or fund the study.

The other essential transportation element for an expanded port — a north-south connector road between the port and Interstate 10 — has been stalled by litigation.

The process to secure federal funding for a deeper channel optimistically takes at least 10 years, and involves environmental and economic studies. Congress must authorize and fund each step.

The Corps' timeline called for a draft of its study to be completed in early 2014, but Robbins said removal of channel deepening has slowed the process. Robbins said the draft should be finished in the next couple of months.

The Corps undertook an expansion study in 2011 that was modified in 2013 to include deepening the ship channel from 36 feet to 42-47 feet. Channel deepening is seen as a key to port growth. Without a deeper channel, the port will be unable to compete for cargo being hauled on larger ships that require drafts deeper than Gulfport can offer. What's more, the port is spending about $30 million on three, rail-mounted gantry cranes designed for bigger vessels.

"The cranes are being built with an eye toward the future with a deeper channel," port Executive Director Jonathan Daniels said.

"If we needed to get additional cranes after deepening the channel, we would be chastised for not being forward-thinking. In addition, the cranes are not used exclusively for container handling. With the longer reach, it allows for us to work barges that may be rafted up alongside a vessel to allow us to go from ship, to an outer reach and directly into barge," he said.

Daniels said the port still plans to pursue a deeper ship channel. The Corps study still includes adding 200 acres, 160 of it on the West Pier. The remaining 40 acres would square off the north harbor for additional docking and open storage, Daniels said.

Advocacy groups following port expansion were unaware that channel deepening had been removed from the Corps study. The groups have united to push for port expansion that maximizes local job creation and minimizes environmental damage.

"It's a surprise and it's a bad choice to leave a hole this big in the analysis," said Reilly Morse, president and CEO of one of those groups, the Mississippi Center for Justice.

A deeper channel, he said is "an essential part of the transportation chain for this port expansion."

"We're building this large, expanded port and we're getting this permit for an expanded port, but we don't have expanded surface-transportation capacity and we don't have expanded shipping capacity. It seems out of whack," Morse said.