NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A few Louisiana businessmen and politicians are dreaming big — as big as the mega-ships of the future that may grow so large they won't be able to make it into the Mississippi River and up to the Port of New Orleans.
They envision those super-sized ships unloading and loading goods 100 miles downriver where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico — where today there's only open water — an idea that some experts and competitors find far-fetched.
That hasn't stopped the dreamers, who see an opportunity with the opening of an expanded Panama Canal later this year that will allow even bigger ships to move goods around the world. At this offshore port, "there will never be a restriction regardless of the size of ships," said A.G. Crowe, a former Republican state senator and president of a state authority involved in the port's development.
In August, the port's backers said they had $25 million in private financing to build the first terminal to handle bulk goods such as grains and coal. The group is applying for permits.
But the dream is much bigger. Backers envision $10 billion worth of terminals to handle everything from oil to cargo containers. And Louisiana's government has set aside about 2,000 acres of open water for the development of this Louisiana International Gulf Transfer Terminal.
This port, its boosters argue, will ensure Louisiana remains a port of call in an era of ever bigger ships and create precious jobs in a state troubled by high poverty and fiscal woes.
The idea is sort of obvious: If ships can't get into port, then the port should come to them.
Container ships have gone from carrying about 5,000 containers in 2000 to 10,000 containers today, and some carry as many as 20,000. Ports around the nation are looking at deepening harbors for the bigger ships.
The federal government is studying how to deepen the Mississippi's channel by 5 feet, down to 50 feet, at an estimated cost of $300 million. The river's channel is choked where it enters the Gulf.
Nationwide, an estimated $9 billion in dredging work is needed to handle the bigger ships, said Kurt J. Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities. Another $29 billion needs to be spent on other infrastructure improvements at the nation's ports, such as larger cranes, he said.
To bypass these problems, the offshore port would be built about 2 miles east of where ships currently enter the Mississippi channel. At the port, the megaships would have their goods unloaded onto smaller "feeder ships," which would span out to other Gulf Coast ports and up the Mississippi River valley.
Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a maritime transportation expert with Hofstra University, said an offshore terminal for bulk goods might work, but he doubted it could handle containers. He said the biggest ships will head to population centers — to New York City and Los Angeles.
Deep-water offshore ports are "technically feasible," he said. But he doubted this one would attract enough large vessels to be commercially viable.
And there's competition.
"We don't think there's any need for it," said Gary LaGrange, the CEO and president of the Port of New Orleans.
Since 2003, that port has spent about $500 million to develop its container capacity, he said. And the port is studying a method to place ballast on ships so they can sail under two downtown bridges, though the river's shallowness still might exclude the biggest vessels from even entering the river.
An offshore container facility would run into even bigger problems, LaGrange said, including the longshoremen's union, hurricanes, the extra costs of loading the cargo onto smaller ships and financing. He argued the coming mega-ships will more likely unload at cheaper Caribbean ports.
"I understand that people are always looking for something new, something big, a new mousetrap, so to speak," LaGrange said. "I don't see how it's a feasible venture."
This story has been corrected to show that Crowe is a former state senator.