That competition has hardly waned since. The Port of New York and New Jersey – a century-old consolidated authority removed from some of the political pressures faced by Louisiana ports – is third in the nation in container traffic.
Michael Hecht, head of GNO Inc., said that without the local population to sustain massive shipments like Houston and New York, New Orleans must compete for business that will serve the “middle third” of the country. He said Mobile is winning that battle right now.
“Only Mobile or New Orleans will do that over time,” he said. “They can’t both do that. If you look at the beginning you’d say it’s a slam dunk for New Orleans because (it) has not only the Mississippi River but also six Class 1 railroads and a good airport. Because of the decades of focus and investment by Alabama … They not only have surpassed us in volume, but in facilities that have been built around the port.”
Brandy Christian, head of the Port of New Orleans, said Mobile’s success is the result of a “very aligned state strategy” that drew a big Walmart distribution center and car manufacturing to that area.
She noted that Louisiana has had multiple “stop-and-start” projects planned for a container terminal on the lower Mississippi River for years.
“When you have competing projects but not a state message, (shippers) ask, ‘Is this the project du jour for bigger vessels?’”
While Christian said there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution, given the dramatic differences in Louisiana’s many ports, private investors contemplating projects near ports want certainty and a cohesive strategy.
‘It’s deja vu again’
In 2009, then-House Speaker Jim Tucker tried to streamline the governance of the ports on the lower Mississippi. The idea, he said, was to better compete with other states and countries ahead of the coming expansion of the Panama Canal.
Instead, Louisiana’s various ports each flexed their political muscle in the Senate to get his bill killed, Tucker recalled recently. At the end of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, the Legislature agreed to set up a state board – the Board of International Commerce — that would oversee the various ports, create a master plan and, hopefully, guide a statewide strategy.
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