With the Panama Canal expansion moving closer to reality, a group backing development of the nation’s first offshore megaport — slated to be built off the coast of Plaquemines Parish — said Monday that the project’s first phase is fully financed and could be operational by the end of 2016.
The announcement comes seven years after planning began for the Louisiana International Deep Water Gulf Transfer Terminal, which is intended to be a cargo transfer point for mega-vessels that are too big to navigate the lower Mississippi River.
When the multibillion-dollar Panama project is finished, the canal will be able to accommodate ships with drafts as deep as 50 feet below the water’s surface. That is 5 feet deeper than what’s now available on the lower Mississippi.
The design and engineering work on the offshore project’s first phase — a $25 million dry-bulk transfer terminal — is scheduled to wrap up by next summer. Applications for the necessary permits will be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard in coming weeks, officials said, with an eye toward finishing construction by next fall.
The dry-bulk terminal is the first of five phases planned for the mega-port, its backers said during a news conference Monday in New Orleans.
The full development, which could take five years and cost $10 billion to build, also will include facilities to handle liquid bulk; petroleum; liquefied natural gas; and container cargo on large vessels entering and leaving the U.S.
The dry-bulk terminal will handle grains, beans, fertilizer and other items.
The proposed terminal will use a hub-and-spoke distribution system that will allow freight to move through coastal and river transit systems to smaller ports. The transfer terminal will be able to off-load eight 18,000-TEU — or 20-foot equivalent units, a measure of cargo capacity for containerized shipping — ships simultaneously in about 36 hours.
For shippers, that quick turnaround means more revenue because ships can make more trips each year.
The project’s backers, including state Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, contend that the mega-port makes the most sense for goods being shipped internationally because the larger vessels can carry more cargo.
The average U.S. port harbor is 35 feet deep, while the average draft of newer, so-called post-Panamax ships is about 50 feet.
The transfer terminal will have water depths of more than 80 feet, allowing it to accommodate “the largest vessels in the world,” Christine Lowenberg, the project’s manager, said Monday.
Tom Thornhill, the project’s co-manager, said the financing is fully in place for the first phase of the project, and he’s optimistic that the full five phases will be built.
“The response of the industry has been overwhelming,” he said, noting that the project has “multiple investors on the private side.”
Crowe, who drafted the legislation to establish the Louisiana International Deep Water Gulf Transfer Terminal Authority in 2008, said the project will fill an obvious need.
But he also acknowledged that not everyone is behind the project. “No doubt this project has its skeptics,” he said. “So did the Superdome, by the way.”
Among those skeptics are leaders at the Port of New Orleans. Asked whether the proposed transfer terminal will draw business away from the New Orleans port, Crowe replied with an abrupt “no.”
Noting the ongoing financial challenge of finding money to continue dredging the lower Mississippi River, Crowe said the new terminal would help ensure that the state doesn’t lose container traffic to other Gulf Coast ports like Houston.
“You’re going to see containers going from 4,000 on a ship to 12,000 to 13,000,” he said. “What that means is the draft will be deeper and it will be even more of a challenge to the money coming in from the federal government to keep (dredging) Southwest Pass even deeper.”
Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, said in a statement Monday that while he wishes the project well, “there are aspects to the overall scope” of its development that could “represent duplicity” with his port.
“We don’t see the feasibility in duplicating what is already in existence with plans to expand,” he said. “Louisiana’s present and future container operations are at the Port of New Orleans.”
Meanwhile, the Corps is studying the feasibility of a potential $300 million effort to deepen the lower Mississippi River by as much as 5 feet.
The project — which would cover the stretch from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico — is being considered largely in light of the work underway at the Panama Canal, which is slated to wrap up next year.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.