The Sun Herald
By Michael Newsom — firstname.lastname@example.org
Officials say just getting dredging approval difficult
Officials with the Port of Gulfport said Thursday that bureaucratic snags prompted them to go back to the drawing board on long range plans for dredging there -- work that would be crucial to attract larger ships and the job creation expected from them.
They say it's been difficult even getting federal approval for the maintenance dredging to get the port back its operational depth of 36 feet. It's been stuck at only about 33 feet for several years. The more long-term expansion plans calling for dredging the port to what could be a much deeper and wider channel are now being re-evaluated, Port Director Don Allee said at Tuesday's Port Commission meeting.
"There are a lot of ports that say 50 feet (depth) is the magic number," Allee said.
"By no means are we saying that. We are revisiting what our appropriate depth should be going forward as that relates to what project depth we need to be at in 2020 to 2025. We're working with the (Army Corps of Engineers) right now and we are having a hard time getting even our maintenance dredging done, much less a deepening or widening project to move forward."
The plans are to restore the port and raise it to a 25-foot elevation in an effort to prevent future storm damage. The port received a total of $570 million in Katrina relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program. Port officials used some of the money to develop a more-ambitious long-term expansion plan, which is under review by the Corps of Engineers.
State leaders are hoping to capitalize on the Panama Canal expansion, which could be operating by 2015. They believe this will lead to an uptick in container traffic that can be sent to Gulfport. State officials also envision a large intermodal yard near Hattiesburg, which could employ a large work force to receive the new cargo from the port and prepare it for U.S. destinations. The intermodal project is likely years away.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported this week that U.S. ports have plans to spend more than $46 billion in the next five years in anticipation of fierce competition over exports and imports in the coming years, according to a report by the American Association of Port Authorities.
Allee said there hasn't been enough federal transportation funds for major port projects to go around, which has hampered the process here. He believes there isn't an existing federal transportation policy that gives guidance about recommended depths to help the approvals process.
"We are working on a national transportation policy," Allee said. "We're not sure whether we will get one during this administration or the next one, but we will get one."
Jobs always an issue
The number of jobs that will be created has been an ongoing, often disputed issue with the project. In April, Mississippi officials agreed to implement a job tracking program related to the port's massive expansion plan after the Department of Housing and Urban Development demanded one. As a result, the agreements the port now has with its tenants including Dole, Chiquita, Crowley Liners Services, and others, require that a minimum of 51 percent of the new jobs in association with the project be available to persons "of low and moderate income families" as the federal government stipulated.
Documents MDA submitted to HUD estimate the port project could create as many as 4,000 direct jobs in the next 25 years, with the lowest estimate being 2,922, which would result if the harbor isn't deepened. They also estimate that as many as 12,773 total jobs could result during the 25-year time frame.
At the meeting, Howard Page, a community organizer for Steps Coalition, which has questioned the port's plans and job creation numbers, told port officials Thursday "jobs are the one of the main questions we hear, and as you look into it, the channel deepening and the fact that there isn't going to be one in this administration is a critical element."
Allee said officials are still working on plans for the deeper channel.
"We aren't sitting idly by," Allee said.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality commissioned an air study that was released to the public in December. It covered the entire county and concluded air emissions there would be no worse after the port expansion. Local activists have questioned the findings and pushed for one focused more closely on the neighborhoods along the planned transportation routes that would serve the expanded port.
After the Gulfport City Council voted 4-3 last week to ask the port to study projected air emissions from transportation corridors that would serve the expansion, Glen Cobb, of the North Gulfport Civic Club, which serves the area the routes would pass through, told the Commission he agreed a new study is needed.
"We feel the port connector road will cause astronomical health risks and we want the port to consider the potential of harm from pollution from diesel exhausts, from trucks, trains and ships," Cobb said. "These pollutants will increase respiratory illness for children and elderly residents in the area. We believe the previous report is fully inaccurate."