Sunday, May 19, 2024

Louisiana’s ports have lost ground to other states. Can a new plan get them working together?

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Louisiana’s ports support one in five jobs in the state. They help move millions of barrels of oil and chemicals products each year and enough U.S. agricultural exports to feed entire countries. Tourists arrive by the boatload for river and ocean cruises, and the taxes that ports generate account for around 5% of the state’s annual budget.

Yet, despite their importance to the economy and jobs, the state’s public ports are run by 32 separate, independent boards that compete against each other for state funding and sometimes for business.

That system, which has persisted for decades as Louisiana has lost ground to other Southern ports, looks set to undergo a big change. 

Earlier this month, lawmakers in the Louisiana House passed, with a vote of 94-2, a bill that would create a powerful state board known as the Louisiana Ports and Waterways Investment Commission.







The Port of South Louisiana has agreed to buy the former Avondale Shipyard site from T. Parker Host Inc. for $445 million. Cranes rise above the site, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, on Jan. 12, 2023.




If the bill passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Jeff Landry, the commission would be responsible for guiding tens of millions of dollars in state funding for port investments and setting strategy for the state’s collection of inland, coastal and deepwater ports.

Currently, Louisiana is the only coastal state in the South that does not have some kind of central body to create strategic plans and guide port investment.

Waterway industry groups have called for the creation of such a body for years and it was one of the main recommendations in a January report from Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack, which starkly laid out how Louisiana has fallen behind competitors in recent years.

“This is a great idea and long overdue,” said Jennifer Marusak, Executive Director of the Ports Association of Louisiana, which represents all of the state’s ports. She added that it would be important that the new commission has teeth in terms of securing new state dollars for port and related infrastructure, which typically unlocks much greater federal funding and private investment.

How important are ports to Louisiana?

Louisiana is one of the most important hubs of waterborne trade in the U.S., with five of its ports ranking among the top 15 in the country by tonnage.

But in recent years, its two largest ports have lost ground to nearby competitors. The Port of South Louisiana was overtaken in 2019 by Houston as the nation’s top port for waterborne tonnage. And the Port of Mobile has surpassed the Port of New Orleans in container traffic after growing 122% in size over the past decade.

During the same period, the Port of New Orleans saw its container volume grow by just 6%.

The latter is particularly concerning as containers are the growth area for world cargo shipping. Decades of dithering over how to expand closer to the mouth of the Mississippi River has been widely cited as a reason for the loss of market share, which the port is looking to make up with the $1.8 billion Louisiana International Terminal that’s currently under development in St. Bernard Parish.

Missed opportunities

As currently worded, House Bill 971, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, would create a 13-member commission under the Office of the Governor, who would have the ability to appoint nine of its members, including the chairperson.







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Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, addresses the house chamber during Governor Jeff Landry’s special session focusing on crime, Wednesday, February 28, 2024, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.




The commission would be responsible for creating a strategic plan that would then be used to guide investments from the state budget.

The main source of state investment currently is the $40 million allocated annually to the Ports Priority Program, which is administered by Louisiana Economic Development.

Funding for that program was doubled under former Gov. John Bel Edwards. But Wright said that amount is still woefully inadequate.

“That leaves us no ability to respond to market needs nor to big investment projects,” said Wright. “So, we’re missing out on opportunities if we don’t start putting significant money into the ports.”

Wright’s bill would supplant and expand two laws passed last year. State Sen. Pat Connick, R-Harvey, sponsored Act 461, which created an advisory commission for the five big deepwater ports: New Orleans, South Louisiana, Baton Rouge, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

“This is long overdue,” said Connick of the new commission that would be created by Wright’s legislation.







Pat Connick

State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero


“The message from this (legislative effort) is that if you are a port and you want state funding, you are all going to have to get together and give us some reason why it is the best and highest use for your port,” he said. “Other ports in other states do it and we need to do it, too.”

Sen. Patrick McMath, whose district covers parts of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa Parishes, also sponsored last year’s Act 459, which created a new office and a commissioner within Louisiana Economic Development to champion ports investment.

The new commission won’t change how independent port boards operate, but it is expected to have a key role directing critical funding across the state’s system. Marusak noted that the new body will report to Gov. Jeff Landry, which means that for the first time, the state’s chief executive will have direct accountability for the sector’s performance.

“He’s going to have a lot more buy-in because he’s going to be accountable for the results,” said Marusak.

Another key task for the commission would be to coordinate spending across all of the state’s transportation infrastructure needs. That is vital for port development strategy, the Waguespack reported noted, adding that there is a $20 billion backlog already for transportation infrastructure spending.







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The Port of Baton Rouge, Community Coffee manufacturing plant and Louis Dreyfus Holding is seen south of the Mississippi River Bridge and Interstate 10, Thursday, October 12, 2023, in West Baton Rouge.




Landry would also appoint one member each from the Louisiana Railroads Association and the Louisiana Motor Transport Association to the new board. The state economic development agency and the Department of Transportation would each have a member on the board. Two members would also be chosen by the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Kate Kelly, a spokesperson for Landry, said the governor is not explicitly backing Wright’s bill at this point, though she noted that “it aligns closely with our Transition Council report on infrastructure.”

Landry has been criticized for seeking to consolidate his already considerable power over state board and commission appointments. However, one of his strongest critics, Barry Erwin, head of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said there is little opposition in this case.

A market study

In anticipation of the new commission, Louisiana’s five deepwater ports have already agreed to fund a study by consultancy Martin Associates to determine how best to carve up cargo business in order for Louisiana to better compete.

The heads of the five ports have been meeting informally for months to discuss plans, according to a joint statement issued in response to questions about the study.







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A Plaquemines Port flag flies from the bow of the M/V Belle Chasse II ferry docked in West Pointe a la Hache along the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com)




The resulting report will be “an in-depth cargo market analysis for the entirety of the Mississippi River Ship Channel” to gauge how best to carve up cargo business on the river, the statement said.

The decision to collaborate on a jointly-funded report is a positive step, said Greg Rusovich, head of Transocean Shipping and chairman of the Board of International Commerce, a trade promotion body within the state economic development agency.

He has long advocated for such a body, and his board’s master plan, issued in November, again called for it.

“At least they are meeting now and they are talking,” Rusovich said of the “Big Five” ports’ collaborative study. “It shows they realize they have to do something.”

Of course, the deepwater ports still have far to go in terms of coordinating their operations, according to some critics of the current port system.

Connick, McMath and Wright said last year that their effort to reform port oversight was spurred in part by the Port of South Louisiana’s $445 million bid to buy the former Avondale shipyard from its private sector owner, T. Parker Host.

That deal took the industry and politicians by surprise as there had been no consultation with other ports, even though Avondale is in the Port of New Orleans jurisdiction and would have significant implications for broader lower Mississippi port strategy.

The Avondale deal is expected to be formally abandoned after the current legislative session ends, according to several sources with knowledge of the deal. It has been in limbo since last October, when it faced widespread political opposition.

Meanwhile, the Port of Plaquemines, is still pursuing its own downriver container terminal project with APM Terminals — which also runs the competing Mobile container terminal — though the $1.8 billion Louisiana International Terminal being developed by the Port of New Orleans has widespread backing from state politicians and most of its funding lined up.

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