The Louisiana Legislature gave birth in 2008 to what was expected to become the nation’s first offshore megaport capable of unloading containers of cargo from some of the largest commercial ships ever constructed — vessels too large to enter rivers, even the Mighty Mississippi.

The Louisiana International Gulf Transfer Terminal was expected to offload the cargo onto a small navy of long, shallow-draft vessels for the trip up the Mississippi River and its tributaries, delivering containers to the many ports in the nation’s center and making Louisiana an even bigger player in international trade.

The LIGTT was promised use of state-owned water bottoms in Plaquemines Parish as a base of operations and has received $150,000 since 2008 for initial studies, planning and administration.

It was expected to attract private funding for construction and operations.

That was and still is the plan — conceived just before the nation’s economy collapsed into the Great Recession weeks later.

Six years have passed since the recession erased millions of jobs and billions of dollars in investments. Today, the estimated cost of building the LIGTT has grown from a proposed $1.3 billion to $2 billion.

Project supporters hope to raise about half that total from foreign nationals, who buy permanent residency in the U.S. by investing at least $500,000 in job-producing ventures like LIGTT, through what are called EB-5 visas.

None of that navy of shallow-draft delivery ships has been built, but they are on the drawing board.

There’s also the challenge of generating exports through LIGTT. Shippers will want those small delivery ships to make the return trip loaded with containers of cargo from their upriver destinations.

State Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, an early LIGTT proponent, remains a big believer in the plan.

The LIGTT, Crowe adds, is about to make the journey from dream to reality.

Interest from potential investors is growing, he says, and backers remain hopeful the river-delivery ships and first major section of the planned port will be ready for operation when the expanded Panama Canal opens for business from enormous ships loaded with containerized cargo in late 2016.

Build that port with private money, and this state will become the container-shipping capital of the Western Hemisphere, the state legislator insists. The necessary $2 billion will be invested by other big believers, he says.

‘Cheapest in the U.S.’

The facility will sit on 2,238 acres of state-owned water bottoms about 2.5 miles east of Southwest Pass and the mouth of the Mississippi River.

“It will be the fastest unloading port in the entire world,” Crowe said. “It will be the first and only transfer terminal for containers in the United States. It will be the cheapest in the United States.”

The port would rise 30 feet out of the Gulf of Mexico, Crowe said. It will stand over open water of at least 70 feet in depth.

Initial plans called for a floating facility, but Crowe said current plans call for installation of giant pylons to anchor the port. Those pylons may range between 150 and 200 feet in length, he added.

Crowe also serves as president of the LIGTT Authority. He pushed for its state establishment for years before the Legislature created it in 2008.

“This all started because my district was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina” in 2005, Crowe said. He said he and other people in the New Orleans area were looking for projects that could boost the local economy in the wake of that storm’s devastation and death.

The anticipated cost of the project has increased $700 million over the original estimate of $1.3 billion, Crowe conceded.

Louisiana’s anticipated benefits, however, also have grown over the past six years, Crowe said.

The offshore port’s first year of operation should net Louisiana $75 million in fees and taxes on the thousands of containers that will be moved up the Mississippi River to New Orleans, Baton Rouge and ports farther north, said Crowe, the founder of several companies including The File Depot, a rapidly growing chain that provides document storage and shredding services in several states.

The project also will generate about 34,000 Louisiana jobs over the port’s first decade of operation, he said.

ABK-LIGTT Development Partners LLC — the project’s developer, manager and fundraiser — anticipates completion of the first 56-acre section of the port by the middle of 2016, Crowe said. That would be in time to serve the world’s new fleet of huge container ships that could begin their first runs through the expanded Panama Canal.

Those ships carry up to 13,000 20-foot cargo containers, Crowe noted, while the average container ship today carries about 5,500 container units.

Much larger vessels capable of carrying 18,000 containers have been built over the past several years. Those giants are too big to clear the expanded canal and obviously require deepwater ports, he said.

Expansive vision

The legislator’s expansive vision includes a fleet of much smaller vessels capable of carrying 1,500 containers but requiring just 9 feet of water draft.

Those vessels are the key to turning the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries into a 14,500-mile system that will reduce highway congestion, Crowe said. Those waterways will allow the shallow-draft vessels to deliver goods to such cities as Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis; Joliet, Illinois; and Cincinnati.

The river-delivery vessels were designed by NaviForm Consulting & Research Ltd., of Vancouver, Canada, Crowe said. Once built, they would be 632 feet in length, 100 feet in width and capable of using either diesel or liquid natural gas as fuel.

“The vessels (were) specifically designed for transporting containers to and from the LIGTT,” NaviForm officials said in a statement released by Crowe.

Though each of those river ships would be limited to a maximum load of 1,500 containers, Crowe said the design can be expanded to produce a 1,016-foot hull capable of delivering 2,500 containers.

There are 32 other states touching the Mississippi or traversed by its tributaries, Crowe noted. He said ABK estimates those states will see their workforces grow by a combined 150,000 because of increased port deliveries generated by LIGTT.

“The interior of the country is right up the river from us here in Louisiana,” Crowe said.

Randall P. Settoon, a management professor with the College of Business at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, participated in the college’s 2012 modeling of the potential economic impact of a transshipment hub at LIGTT’s site.

“Something like this would have a huge economic impact (on) the local, state and regional economies — initially through construction and down the road through operations,” Settoon said.

Settoon also said the bigger ships that will move back and forth through the expanded Panama Canal represent “a real issue for existing U.S. ports, and billions of dollars are being spent for infrastructure upgrades.”

Those upgrades, Settoon said, include dredging of harbors and raising of bridges.

“It is certain that traffic will be diverted from ports along the West Coast due to congestion and other factors there that increase uncertainty about time to market — which carries risk and increased costs for shippers,” Settoon said.

Potential obstacles

That business windfall, though, might not necessarily land at an offshore port at the mouth of the Mississippi, the SLU professor cautioned after being asked about potential obstacles.

“It is also possible that new ports being built outside the U.S. in Mexico and Central/South America … may provide a cost-effective alternative for shippers, who operate on a very thin margin,” Settoon said.

Settoon also noted shippers would face additional labor and service costs by unloading container cargo at an offshore port for eventual distribution up the Mississippi by smaller vessels.

Because those specially designed river vessels have not yet proven their reliability, shippers initially may be reluctant to rely on them, Settoon added.

Owners of enormous new container ships, Settoon said, would have concerns about the possibility that U.S. companies in the Mississippi River valley may not have enough container-stored goods to export through the offshore port.

“If the ship comes back … empty, they aren’t making money,” Settoon noted.

Many of the exports that move down the Mississippi are bulk products that will be shipped inside the hulls of oceangoing vessels, the SLU professor said.

“If a portion of those exports can be converted to transport by containers, LIGTT would gain some attention,” Settoon said.

Although the port would sit above state-owned water atop submerged and state-owned land, it will be privately funded.

Originally, the plan was to attract only foreign investors to the project through the federal EB-5 visa program. That program offers permanent residency in the U.S. to immigrants willing to invest at least $500,000 in projects that employ at least 10 workers.

“EB-5 funding, which is the least expensive source of investment dollars, will only account for about 50 percent of the total funds needed,” Crowe said recently.

At the minimum investment, LIGTT would have to attract up to 2,000 immigrant investors.

Pursuing investors

The remaining $1 billion will come from traditional investors, Crowe said.

He said ABK officials recently told him major corporations, banks and other Wall Street investment groups have expressed interest in the project.

That interest, he said, was fueled by the December approval by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of LIGTT’s request to raise funds from EB-5 investors.

Since then, Crowe said, ABK has received queries from wealthy individuals and firms interested in plans for the offshore port.

New York resident Patrick J. Harvey is the only member of ABK-LIGTT Development Partners listed in records of the Louisiana secretary of state. In February, Harvey was the keynote speaker for the EB-5 Summit for Attorneys and Developers in Los Angeles.

The program for that conference listed Harvey as a managing partner for ABK Venture Group, which was awarded the financing contract for the LIGTT in 2011. Since joining ABK Venture Group in 2011, the program noted, Harvey has pursued venture capital, private equity funding and foreign direct investments from EB-5 capital.

Potential investors expressing interest in the project include people and firms in Brazil, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada, Crowe said.

“There are very few places for multibillion-dollar investors to put their money,” Crowe observed.

After the offshore port begins operations, ABK will begin paying $2 million in annual fees to the LIGTT Authority, Crowe noted.

“Once the port is up and going and generating profits, and all debts have been paid off, the ABK development group will turn over all facilities to the state of Louisiana,” Crowe added.

That process, Crowe estimated, could take anywhere from a decade to 40 years.

Visa holders growing

The numbers of EB-5 visa holders available to invest in the project are expanding.

Those visas have an annual cap of 10,000 — a maximum that has not been reached since the program began in 1990.

However, this fiscal year, 9,810 EB-5 visas had been issued by Aug. 31, officials of the U.S. Department of State reported, already exceeding an old record of 8,564. State Department officials said Friday that another 840 EB-5 visas were allocated for September, but that does not mean all those visas were issued. Those totals won’t be released until later this month.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services receives immigrants’ petitions for removal of conditions on their U.S. residency after immigrants fulfill their investment obligations, which can range from $500,000 to $1 million.

From 1991 through Fiscal Year 2013, 5,739 EB-5 immigrants were granted permanent residency after investing a combined total of more than $8.6 billion, said USCIS Press Secretary Christopher S. Bentley.

Crowe keeps up with EB-5 numbers and remains convinced the offshore port will be completed. He also says LIGTT will become a magnet for worldwide import and export of goods packed in containers.

Neither hurricanes nor lack of investors will prevent the project’s success, Crowe insisted: “We believe this will be a huge win for Louisiana and the nation.”