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Wicker Supports Efforts to Enhance Mississippi’s Ports

Widened Panama Canal Offers Opportunities for Economic Growth

Monday, July 30, 2012

The expansion of the Panama Canal is generating new interest in U.S. ports along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard.  By 2015, the Canal will have the capacity to accommodate significantly larger cargo ships.  The subsequent boost in maritime commerce means Mississippi will be able to capitalize on international trade opportunities.     

My vision is for our state to have a major port that will benefit the entire region and country.  Some recent reports wrongly underestimate the potential Mississippi has to position itself as a world-class place for commerce.  The Port of Gulfport is an invaluable state resource that needs to be fully utilized.  

Readying our ports is essential as the transportation sector adapts to “Post Panamax” ships capable of bringing in greater volumes of goods.  Because shipping is less expensive than other types of transport, reliable port capabilities help keep our country’s trade market competitive.  Seaports also support millions of American jobs.  

High Stakes for Economic Growth

Substantial investments in port infrastructure are necessary to prepare for the increase in shipping traffic.  The Port of Gulfport needs deepening to 45 feet in order to handle the heavier vessels that will soon pass through the Panama Canal.  Earlier this month, the Obama Administration announced it would expedite infrastructure projects at five major ports in the United States.  No ports along the Gulf of Mexico were named.  

The stakes are high as maritime commerce expands.  A sizeable and strategic container seaport like the Port of Gulfport is a critical engine for economic growth.  A major increase in the amount of cargo that moves through Gulfport would make a considerable impact on local job creation and business revenue.  

The massive restoration project currently underway at the Port of Gulfport is a constructive step for the future, although securing authorization for a deeper channel remains a challenge.  Projections anticipate that a modernized Port of Gulfport could triple its activity over the next 25 years – fueling economic development throughout the region.       

Need for Routine Port Maintenance

And yet, any plans for new excavation are hamstrung by the lack of routine maintenance dredging.  Without dependable upkeep, port facilities can become inaccessible, jeopardizing shipping operations and putting a chokehold on the economy.  According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the country’s busiest ports are available at their authorized dimensions less than 35 percent of the time.    

Severely low water levels along the Mississippi River this summer have amplified calls for dredging.  The Mississippi River is a vital inland route for millions of tons of goods, and a disruption in shipping threatens to raise prices on many commodities – unfairly adding to the economic burdens already on American families and businesses.  

Ensuring Future Competitiveness

Port maintenance will be an extensive and long-term process, but there are signs that progress is within reach.  An important provision I supported in the recent highway bill would help direct available resources where they need to be.  The provision stipulates that the money in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is prioritized for dredging and other maintenance.  Only a limited amount of revenues in the fund – generated by fees collected from shippers – are being used for their intended purpose.

Established in 1986, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund was created to ensure the vitality of America’s navigation channels.  With a surplus of $7 billion, it should be better utilized to address current port deficiencies.  Making our ports competitive is an obligation we must fulfill.

July 2012 Weekly Columns