Offshore megaport near mouth of Mississippi plans $25 million first phase
State Sen. A.G. Crowe, left, cuts a cargo ship cake after backers of the Louisiana International Deep Water Gulf Transportation Terminal announced Monday, Aug. 31, 2015, they had secured the $25 million needed for the first phase of their project.
A long-proposed offshore megaport at the end of the Mississippi River could start to take shape next year, with its supporters hailing it as the most significant economic development in Louisiana history.
Leaders at existing ports applaud their optimistic outlook but question whether the project is a viable undertaking.
Backers of the Louisiana International Deep Water Gulf Transportation Terminal (LIGTT) announced Monday (Aug. 31) they have amassed enough private financing to begin the first phase of a $10 billion project. They held a press conference at the Westin New Orleans, complete with champagne and the cutting of a cake shaped like a cargo ship.
The champion of the project is state Sen. A.G. Crowe, the Pearl River lawmaker who crafted a law approved in 2008 creating a public-private partnership to build the port. He serves as president of the board overseeing the port project as an adviser to its management team.
"No doubt this project has had its skeptics," Crowe said. "So did the Superdome. So did the Causeway."
LIGTT is planned for 2,250 acres three miles off the coast of Plaquemines Parish, 20 miles south of Venice. Approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard is necessary to begin construction of the offshore structure, and developers say they will be applying for those permits soon. If approval is granted within an anticipated nine- to 12-month time frame, the first phase could be operational by late 2016.
Crowe and others were quick to note the project won't require any public dollars. They said they have the $25 million needed to begin the project's first "vertical" -- a dry bulk cargo facility that would offload massive ships and transfer it to shallow draft ships and barges that could navigate upriver or sail to other ports on the Gulf of Mexico.
Future LIGTT phases call for terminals for liquid bulk cargo, liquefied natural gas, upstream pipelines and container cargo, all offshore structures that would be the "centerpiece of a hub-and-spoke distribution system," according to project documents.
The focal point of LIGTT as originally proposed was container cargo, but Crowe said input from private sector investors led to changes that involved a broader variety of cargo.
Containers appear to remain a very significant part of the LIGTT vision, just ahead of the completion of the Panama Canal expansion to allow the world's largest cargo ships to cross the isthmus. Crowe said logistics experts with Wal-Mart, the global retailer that's most likely to take advantage of the new "Panamax" class cargo ships, have been influential in shaping LIGTT plans. They have indicated they would be interested in shipping containers through the terminal even if it added time to their delivery, he said.
The advantage of LIGTT, Crowe explained, is that it would allow shippers to send more cargo to its destination via water than possible by truck or train.
"They are interested in two things: the lowest price and quickest delivery time," Crowe said, explaining that cargo shippers are willing to add time if it means they can save money with volume.
Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.
Port officials on the lower Mississippi River like the idea bringing more cargo to Louisiana, but they have specific concerns about LIGTT's business plan.
Gary LaGrange, Port of New Orleans president of CEO, said in a statement the proposed offshore terminal would provide redundant container services.
"We don't see the feasibility in duplicating what is already in existence with plans to expand," LaGrange said. "Louisiana's present and future container operations are at the Port of New Orleans. Funding of more than $300 million has been invested in the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, which is served by six class one railroads ... with a new $25.1 million intermodal transfer terminal currently under construction. Future plans call for the terminal to be expanded to a capacity of 1.5 million (containers)."
The Port of South Louisiana, upriver near LaPlace, handles the same dry bulk cargo the first phase of LIGTT intends to transfer. Its president, Paul Aucoin, said he supports "any idea that sends more ships that can fit under the Huey P. Long Bridge" to his facility.
As to whether there is interest among cargo carriers to send larger ships to the mouth of the Mississippi, he was uncertain.
"Most cargo is time-sensitive," Aucoin said. "I can't see where they would go through a transfer to get to the five ports on the lower Mississippi that they're already servicing."
Water transportation will also be key to LIGTT's construction and operation. Crowe said crew boats will shuttle workers to and from the site, much like they already do for the offshore oil and gas industry. Some services at the port would be automated, but there would be the need for an operations staff that would live offshore at the facility.
A management team has been assembled for the private sector involvement in the project. Christine Lowenberg, its executive project manager, said LIGTT will create "tens of thousands of jobs," with indications that number included indirect employment hinging on the terminal reaching its proposed capacity.
Crowe had originally sought investors for LIGTT through the EB-5 visa program, which provides U.S. visas to foreigners in exchange for significant investments. Such funding never materialized and money for the first phase will instead come from the Bank of Montreal and a handful of Wall Street investment firms, some represented at Monday's announcement.
Other members of the LIGTT Midstream Holdings management team include co-managers Tom Thornhill, a Slidell attorney and former state representative, and Jim Woodworth, whose investments include a $120 million wind farm, as well as Jimmy Faircloth, former executive counsel to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
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