Port of N.O. could spend $450M to prepare for wider Panama Canal

Published: Aug. 2, 2013 at 8:04 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 9, 2013 at 8:34 PM CDT
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Massive cranes at the Port of New Orleans (File/AP)
Massive cranes at the Port of New Orleans (File/AP)
Cranes works in part of the new set of locks of the Panama Canal as a part of their expansion...
Cranes works in part of the new set of locks of the Panama Canal as a part of their expansion project (File/AP)

The Port of New Orleans is embarking on a $27 million project to prepare for increased freight from the widening of the Panama Canal. The canal will be finished within two years, but the port believes it needs to move now.

Outside the Port of New Orleans, the truck traffic is relentless. In coming years, things may get even busier.

Port officials are preparing now for new ship traffic that will be brought in by the widening of the Panama Canal, a project that could double freight traffic in 20 years.

"The larger ships coming through the canal will go from 39 feet to 50 feet depth.," said Gary LaGrange with the Port of New Orleans.

But the Mississippi River at new Orleans is only maintained to a 45-foot depth. With that in mind, Louisiana's congressional delegation has proposed a bill to dig it to a depth of 50 feet, to help draw in more business.

LaGrange projects, "Your growth will be 7 percent the first year the canal opens. Then it averages 1 to 3 percent each year thereafter."

Depth is important in the shipping industry, and New Orleans is one of only two U.S. ports that owns its own dredge to make sure the river is deep enough.

The port is also using a combination of federal job stimulus dollars and state money to build a $27 million intermodal rail facility to speed freight movement.

"Business facilities selected the Port of New Orleans as the best logistically located port in the U.S. and the most intermodal port in the United States," said LaGrange.

In the long term, the port wants to add two more container cranes, as they try to double their current capacity to around 1.6 million standard cargo containers a year - a project that could ultimately cost $450 million.

"We decided to go ahead and build it incrementally... 20 million here, 30 there, 50 million dollars here," said LaGrange.

It's a game plan that could take 15 years - part of an overall design to keep New Orleans competitive, once the wider canal opens up.

The new Panama Canal will allow ships so large that few U.S. ports will be able to handle them. For that reason, there are mega-ports already set up in places such as Jamaica and Mexico. Extra-large ships there will transfer cargo to smaller ships that would then access ports across the U.S. including New Orleans.