The expanded Panama Canal will trigger a huge increase in commerce, and Louisiana should be doing more to take advantage of it, an official involved in the project said.
Luis Carlos Ferreira, who used to live in Louisiana, noted that states along the Gulf Coast and east coast are upgrading ports and taking other steps to prepare for giant, cargo-hauling ships that are about to become commonplace when the $5.2 billion project is completed in 2015.
Cargo shipped through the expanded canal is expected to triple, and 337 million tons went through in 2011.
Ferreira ticked off a list of ports undergoing major improvements, including Houston, Miami and sites in Mississippi and Alabama.
“So as you can see everyone is doing something to get prepared,” he said. “We need to do something to get prepared in Louisiana.”
Ferreira is a communications specialist officer and engineer operators coordinator for the Panama Canal expansion program.
He made his comments during the annual meeting of the American Council of Engineering Companies, which sent a delegation in June to look at the widening project and how Louisiana can take advantage of the increase in shipping traffic.
“Obviously the widening is going to generate more cargo, and that cargo is on its way somewhere,” Anthony J. Mumphrey Jr., president of the ACEC’s Louisiana branch, said earlier this year.
“One of those places could be the ports in Louisiana,” Mumphrey said.
In July, the group endorsed a bill by Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Mississippi River to 50 feet from its mouth to Baton Rouge to accommodate bigger ships that will be going through the Panama Canal.
ACEC officials have said the larger ships would make it more cost effective to ship larger quantities of commodities, such as coal, grain, liquid natural gas and chemicals,
However, Richmond’s bill shows little sign of life in the House.
State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said the canal project could have a major impact on Louisiana.
“It is a game changer,” Strain said. “It is going to be very positive.”
He said one step that would help the state take advantage of the expansion would be for Congress to pass a bill by Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, called the RAMP Act.
Boustany’s measure would dedicate more funds to river dredging and port projects in Louisiana, and elsewhere.
A weaker version of the plan was included in the federal transportation bill that was signed into law in July.
That provision said funds from the $7 billion Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund “should” be used for dredging and port work.
However, since such spending is not required, it is unclear what if any impact the law will have on Boustany’s goal.
The Republican, who is seeking re-election, faces fellow Republican Rep. Jeff Landry, of New Iberia, in the Dec. 8 runoff.
Strain has endorsed Boustany.
The Panama Canal links commerce between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
It will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2014.
Nearly 15,000 ships passed through the canal in 2011.
The U.S. accounts for 65 percent of the traffic. China is second with 24 percent.
The project includes the addition of two new locks to handle mega ships never envisioned when the original canal opened.
“Big ships with a lot of cargo, they barely fit in the Panama Canal,” Ferreira said.
He said the project is much more than a renovation.
“Actually what we are doing is building another canal,” Ferreira said.
Population growth forecasts in the U.S. between now and 2030 are among the driving forces behind bigger ships hauling more cargo, he said.
Louisiana has 28 active ports.
The Port of New Orleans made improvements earlier this year to capture its share of the expected increase in container cargo after the expanded canal starts operations.