La. ag commissioner, N.O. port director at odds over need for Panamax port

La. ag commissioner, N.O. port director at odds over need for Panamax port

The Port of New Orleans has a lot of work to do to get ready for larger ships once the Panama Canal is widened. One idea is to make the river deeper, but one state official wants to build a new mega port near the mouth of Mississippi.

The Panama Canal widening project has been billed as a game-changer for the Port of New Orleans, and though it was supposed to be completed this year, there's a delay.

"They are about a year behind," Port Director Gary LaGrange said.

That will give Louisiana officials some extra time to plan for larger ships with deeper drafts carrying larger cargoes.

"We don't need $500 million," LaGrange said. "We've been developing our container terminal incrementally."

But the state's agriculture commissioner says we need a whole new port.

"The big thing we need, we have to have a Panamax berth," said Commissioner Mike Strain. He said in seven years, 20 percent of all cargo will be shipped on larger ships made possible by a wider Panama Canal.

"If we put a big Panamax berth at the mouth of the river, it will increase the amount of goods by 15 to 20 percent," Strain said.

While some believe a new port is needed near the mouth of the river to accommodate additional Panama Canal shipping, LaGrange is adamant about keeping it right here.

"I disagree with that - totally disagree," he said. "We have everything we need right now."

LaGrange said it doesn't make sense to put a large port facility at the mouth of the river.

"It would be a billion to a billion and a half, and then the infrastructure is another three billion to go along with it, and by the way, when a hurricane comes along, what happens to the container terminal? It's in Galveston," said LaGrange.

LaGrange is now waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a study on dredging the river deeper to accommodate larger container ships all the way to New Orleans and beyond. But he said the Port of New Orleans will be okay either way.

"Those ships, what those ships do is offload to feeder ships either at Manzanilla, Dominican Republic, or Jamaica," said LaGrange. "They offload to a feeder ship - 9,000 container size, and those are the ones - 90 percent that will call on the ports in the U.S."

And with a new canal also being proposed for Nicaragua, there's little doubt that with or without a new port, increased trade traffic is on the way.

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.