With the federal authorization it needs, the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA) could start work on a multimillion-dollar project to deepen, widen and expand the Mobile Shipping Channel as early as 2020 in order to accommodate larger shipping vessels that have become common in the industry.
It is a project that has been discussed for the better part of the last decade, and over the past four years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Mobile District, has been conducting a
$7.8 million study of the most economically and environmentally feasible ways to make it happen.
Earlier this month, Major General Diana Holland, commander of the South Atlantic Division, signed the Record of Decision for USACE’s report and environmental study, and now the agency is in the process of performing final evaluations of the areas that will be dredged as part of the planned expansion.
As written, the recommended plan would deepen the 36-mile channel by five feet to a total depth of 50 feet, with depths of up to 52 feet in some locations. It would also expand the width of the existing channel by 50 feet on either side, increasing the total width from 400 feet to 500 feet.
Speaking to Lagniappe, ASPA President Jimmy Lyons said the additional width and depth will increase the maximum size of ships that are able to call on the Port of Mobile, and as one of the first ports in the Gulf of Mexico to hit those depths, he said it would make the port more competitive nationally.
“We’re just continuing to get bigger ships. That’s a fact, and we’re getting more that are picking up more tonnage than they’re currently able to here,” Lyons said. “By putting more tonnage on a single ship, it drives down the cost our shippers pay for that oceangoing freight. The benefit is reducing the cost for Alabama shippers who are shipping through this port because there is a competitive element to this.”
Other than the preliminary work, the next step in the process will be in Congress’ hands as it negotiates appropriations for the 2021 fiscal year. The federal funding for the channel expansion will come down through the general appropriations to USACE and will likely be spread out over multiple years.
Lyons said he believes the project, which is currently estimated to cost around $400,000, could be completed in three years if work can start in October 2020. As it stands now, the federal government would pick up 60 percent of the tab with the state covering the rest with gas-tax revenue.
An increase in gas taxes approved earlier this year is expected to generate $11.7 million for the state annually to fund bond payments for the state’s $150 million portion of the expansion. However, the exact cost of the project won’t become clear until bids are awarded to the companies doing the work.
According to Lyons, only a handful of companies could feasibly take on a project this size, and based on federal rules, contracts for dredging have to go to American companies. In his estimation, Lyons said there may be as few as five companies that submit bids, though more than one could receive some work.
With funding secured on the state side, the only real hurdle now is making sure the promised federal funding actually makes it way to the Gulf Coast. However, with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, serving as the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, there seems to be a lot of confidence in the Alabama senator’s ability to secure the necessary federal funding over the next two to three years.
On Twitter, Shelby said the recent greenlight from USACE was “big news!” for Alabama.
“This is incredible news, and I look forward to working with the Corps of Engineers & the Alabama State Port Authority to begin the next phase in the process – Preconstruction, Engineering and Design,” Shelby wrote. “We’re one step closer to transforming the entire state of Alabama.”
The project has been heralded by those in the industry, but it has also been a subject of controversy among some who worry the expansion of a heavily trafficked shipping channel could have negative impacts on Mobile Bay’s environment, the local seafood industry and the continued erosion of Dauphin Island.
The recent study evaluated many environmental concerns and found the expansion is not anticipated to have “significant” ecological impacts to any part of Mobile Bay.
Yet, for some local environmentalists, that seems too good to be true — especially when similar projects have led to impacts on the ecosystems around them. Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway has previously said having “no measurable impacts” would negate the need for mitigation efforts that could balance any impacts that do occur.
“We have not seen the record of decision, though we understand there was at least one change in the final document. We just don’t know what it is,” Callaway said. “If it continues to say there is no impact from deepening and widening the shipping channel for 31 miles, we will have a problem with that.”
The longstanding concern of whether dredging the ship channel contributes significantly to the erosion of Dauphin Island’s shoreline was also looked at in the recent study. Officially, USACE denies dredging is a significant factor in that erosion, but it will be taking steps later this year to place sand it digs up during the process in an area that might help the island rebuild more quickly.
For nearly two decades, USACE has deposited “beach-quality” dredge material from its routine maintenance of the channel in the Sand Island Beneficial Use Area (SIBUA) southeast of Dauphin Island, but residents complained and USACE later confirmed it was having little to no impact there.
While USACE says it’s unrelated to the erosion concerns, it’s dredging operations will soon start dumping that beach-quality material approximately 3,305 acres to the northwest — putting it much closer to Dauphin Island, while also increasing the agency’s own disposal capacity.
Mayor Jeff Collier said he appreciates the proposed change in where the material is disposed of and is hopeful it can make a difference on the island. However, he also acknowledged that even if the expanded SIBUA is successful, it would take years to see any tangible results on the shoreline.
“We can always hope and wish it would have been more or been put in a better location, but I understand there’s a lot of challenges when you’re doing this kind of work,” Collier said. “We also recognize that, with the expansion, USACE is in a better position to benefit the downdrift areas, which is important to us because one of our foremost concerns is Dauphin Island and its property owners.”
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