Funding go-ahead for Mississippi River deepening seen as boon for exports

Sean Duffy has been waiting since 2012 for a critical development in a plan to deepen the Mississippi River Ship Channel to 50 feet. The wait ended on Friday with a partnership agreement from the state of Louisiana that authorizes the $250 million project to move forward.

“Having the state agreement is huge,” Duffy, executive director of the Big River Coalition, told FreightWaves. “We’ve been working with the state on this for eight years. They’ve told us the money was going to be there and that they were behind the project, and this confirms that. Now the dredging contracts can be issued and the deepening can begin.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ and Louisiana Department of Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson’s signoff with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers essentially unlocked federal funding within the Army Corps’ budget that had already been allocated to the project.

“When completed, this project will allow larger vessels that can currently use the widened Panama Canal to reach Louisiana ports as far north as Baton Rouge,” commented Bel Edwards. “It will also allow for some vessels to carry heavier loads.”

The project, which could be completed as early as 2024, will deepen from 45 to 50 feet two sections within a 256-mile stretch of the Lower Mississippi River from the Port of Baton Rouge south to the Gulf of Mexico. It will allow bulk cargo vessels to take on full loads at river ports instead of having to partially load and transfer cargo to larger ships elsewhere.

On average, 1 foot of additional depth allows approximately $1 million in additional cargo, which can translate to significant transportation cost savings for shippers while stimulating U.S. agribusiness exports.

“The Lower Mississippi River is the No. 1 export region for America’s soybean and corn farmers,” said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. “Enhancing the Mississippi River simultaneously enhances the competitiveness and profitability of American agriculture.”

Along with the Port of Baton Rouge, the deepening will allow larger ships to access the Port of South Louisiana and the Port of New Orleans.

“The Mississippi River connects 31 states to the world and 60% of all grain exported from the U.S. is shipped via the river,” said Paul Aucoin, executive director of the Port of South Louisiana, the largest port by tonnage in the Western Hemisphere. “It’s my hope that a fully dredged river will power our nation’s economy and help us recover from this terrible economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”

Phase 1 of the project, which is expected to be completed within two years, will open approximately 175 miles of the ship channel to the deeper draft from the Gulf of Mexico to an area that encompasses the entire jurisdiction of the Port of New Orleans (Port NOLA). The project is expected to help the port handle growing container volumes at its Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal.

“A deeper river will allow Port NOLA and the Lower Mississippi River port-complex to reliably handle larger vessels that carry more cargo and generate significant economic benefits for the region,” Port NOLA President and CEO Brandy Christian commented last year. “The capability of handling larger vessels is essential to Port NOLA’s competitive advantage and supports our existing success with retaining the service of major carriers.”

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