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Port of N.O. must focus on sensible solutions

It’s been almost a year and a half now since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, triggering the city’s flooding. Memories fade about the event and the infrastructure that shaped it, and perhaps that’s the thinking why again we’re hearing from the Port of New Orleans as it tries to grab more taxpayer money for no good reason.

For many years, an ongoing project to replace the lock at the Industrial Canal (officially the “Inner Harbor Navigation Canal”) has continued. The Port supports this, even as studies have shown the $748 million device could be replaced far more cheaply, especially as the canal has continued to see a decrease in use with the wider Mississippi River being more accommodating to deep-draft ocean-going vessels and barge traffic going elsewhere.

It also has lost traffic as it connects to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, itself in declining use for large vessels. MR-GO is widely blamed for increasing the impact of the hurricane. It looks all but certain that MR-GO will be closed for reasons of cost effectiveness and flood protection, which even though its use was on the decline, concerns the Port because there will be some loss of business.

This closure (except for that part of MR-GO that simultaneously serves as the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway) might seem to obviate the need of a new lock. The only other purpose that the Canal could serve other than barge traffic in conjunction with it being part of the GIWW route, which in most parts provides a draft of 12 feet which would not accommodate ships much larger than those related to barge traffic, would be to transfer shipping from the Mississippi to Lake Ponchartrain, hardly a high-traffic route for large vessels. Thus, the case for a new lock allowing larger vessels/shorter wait times seems rather pointless.

But the Port never has seen it that way, preferring greater access for the five shipping concerns (as of now; a couple plan to leave) lining the canal. Indeed, it has tied the acquisition of the new lock to the closing of MR-GO, in essence trying to hold hostage keeping MR-GO until getting the new lock. And apparently, that still is the Port’s position.

Nonetheless, the Port does have a good argument that, since the federal government looks to be closing off potential business for the Port, that it should get some compensation for it, perhaps to enable moving of some of those concerns. The Water Resources Development Act of the previous Congress did address this. However, the vague language committed $175 million of federal money to the Port for practically anything that had anything to do with “relocation of Port of New Orleans deep draft facilities from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet … the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, and the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal to the Mississippi River.”

The amount of the appropriation and whether the lack of specifications for its use beg revisiting; as it was, the bill died last fall under the weight of far more questionable projects which did not include more money for the new lock. Nevertheless, either refitting the old lock or relocating affected businesses will be a far cheaper solution that pursuing the cost-ineffective idea of a new lock, and it’s time Port officials stopped wasting time, effort, and the taxpayers’ attention on it.

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