Saturday, December 31, 2005

Possible New Port

Wilmington Morning Star
Brunswick port price tag: $1 billion Will dwarf Wilmington facility in size
By Mark Schreiner
Raleigh Bureau Chief

RALEIGH | It takes more than a piece of land to make an ocean port.

The N.C. State Ports Authority will need about $1 billion, the support of Congress and the General Assembly and a moneyed private partner to make its dream of a major new terminal near the mouth of the Cape Fear River a reality.

On Thursday, the authority’s board of directors agreed to negotiate for the purchase of 600 acres of industrial property near the Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal.

Buying the land, said ports CEO Tom Eagar, is just a step in a large and ambitious public project.

The project, he said, was driven by deficiencies at the Port of Wilmington and by recent economic reports that point to an explosion in ship traffic to the United States and overcrowded docksides already unable to handle the load.

“The capability of the Port of Wilmington to grow with the market is limited by its footprint,” he said.

The facility at the end of Shipyard Boulevard is hemmed in by a growing city. It is also 26 miles from the ocean. It seemed unlikely, he said, that Congress could be persuaded to dredge that channel to 50 feet deep to accommodate ever-larger container ships.

“Unless we were able to come with an alternative, we would be basically relinquished to a second-tier port operation,” he said, at a time when ocean-going traffic is expected to grow.

The new port, by some measures, will dwarf the Wilmington facility.

The new port is projected to handle 2 million container units a year. The Wilmington port, after an upcoming round of investment, will be able to handle 530,000 a year.

The new port is set to have a dock 4,000 feet long, enough to accommodate four vessels at once. The berth at Wilmington is 2,400 feet long, enough to accommodate two large ships.

The germ of the idea, he said, came from a 2003 U.S. Chamber of Commerce study on the nation’s ports.

In it, the trade group argued that the nation is behind in developing ocean terminals and the systems that transfer goods from ships to trucks and rail cars.

Increasing international trade will double the amount of cargo passing through East Coast ports by 2020, the report said. But that business is coming faster than railroads can lay track or major port operators can open new berths and warehouses.

Ports at Charleston, Savannah and Norfolk are running at capacity already and with little room to grow, said state Rep. Danny McComas, R-New Hanover.

“We are geographically located better than any of the other ports,” said McComas, who runs a trucking company that moves freight through several Southeast ports. “This new project will have room to grow.”

The ports had been looking at expansion opportunities, he said, but the effort really took off about three months ago when the authority learned that drug maker Pfizer was interested in selling the land it owns near Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal.

While the economic prospects look good, several deals need to be made before it could open in eight to 10 years.

First the land deal with Pfizer must be completed, Eagar said.
Then, a private investor – most likely an international company with experience operating ports – must be found to partner with the ports authority.

“A major investor will be needed, given the magnitude of this project,” he said.

Even then, tax dollars will be needed.

Forty percent of the anticipated $1 billion cost will be to dredge the 9.5 miles between the new port and the open ocean to perhaps 50 feet. Congress, he said, would be asked to pay for much of that cost.

Part of the argument to federal officials will be the benefit to the military of having such a port available to ship out soldiers and materiel.

There will be a request to the General Assembly.

“We will need some state support,” Eagar said.

If built, local roads in Brunswick County will have to be improved to handle the load of trucks. A connection to a nearby CSX rail line will have to be made.

“It’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take a lot of money,” McComas said. Some of that will likely be “seed money” from state taxpayers, he said.

Not all agree that the new port is an appropriate project for a state government agency.

“If it is such a growth industry, perhaps we should put the port facilities up for sale instead of making another state facility,” said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative policy institute. “A new port may be a great idea, but it should not be something the taxpayers of North Carolina should be compelled to speculate on.”

Mark Schreiner: (919) 835-1434

posted by David at 9:56 AM :: Permalink ::

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