Port dredging provision in spending bill could complete ‘transformative’ Alabama project

Port dredging provision in spending bill could complete ‘transformative’ Alabama project

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

One seemingly small provision in a now-passed $1.4 trillion government spending bill could mean big results for finally completing a project long sought by Alabama’s business and political leaders: the deepening and widening of the Mobile shipping channel.

Alabama Daily News first reported Thursday that the Energy and Water Development portion of the omnibus domestic appropriations bill enacts and funds a program that will allow the Alabama port expansion project to move forward. The bill contains $378 million for a Regional Dredge Demonstration Program in the central Gulf of Mexico. Though not a direct appropriation, Mobile Harbor will be eligible for the funds, which means the Alabama port project could very well be in its way to completion.

Sen. Richard Shelby, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has for years championed expanding Alabama’s port because of the uniquely powerful economic catalyst it can be for the state. Shelby said he is “exceptionally proud” that funding to improve the Port of Mobile is included in the government spending package, adding it has the potential to “transform Alabama’s economy for generations to come.”

“This project is not only of great importance to me, but it will allow for more goods to be shipped and sold from our state, extending benefits throughout Alabama while creating more economic opportunities,” Shelby said Thursday upon the bill’s final passage.

“I am exceptionally proud that funding is included in this appropriations package, and I look forward to the immeasurable impact this project will have on our state once completed,” he said.

In September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved a plan to deepen and widen the shipping channel into the Port of Mobile. The proposed improvement project will deepen the existing Bar, Bay and River Channels to 52 feet, 50 feet and 50, respectively. Construction could begin in late 2020, according to a press release from the Alabama State Port Authority. 

The project includes widening the Bay Channel by 100 feet for three nautical miles to accommodate two-way vessel traffic.

Alabama State Port Authority Director Jimmy Lyons explained that the port will still have to apply to the Army Corps of Engineers for approval for the funding, but said Alabama is “well positioned” to compete.

“Having our permit and having our engineering well underway put us in a very, very good position in terms of our status and where we are,” Lyons said. “We honestly weren’t expecting to see anything until the next fiscal year, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this funding included. There’s a very good possibility that we can start the project this fiscal year, as opposed to next fiscal year.”

Lyons credited Shelby with being an advocate for the project.

“Sen. Shelby is amazing,” Lyons said. “What he’s done for us and the state of Alabama, it’s really something. He’s been our champion.”

During the 2019 legislation session, state lawmakers approved a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase expected to generate about $320 million a year. About $150 million of that new revenue was pledged to port improvements.

State political and business leaders emphasized that commitment making a difference toward completing the shipping channel project.

“Earlier this year, our state made an investment in our infrastructure through the Rebuild Alabama Act, and that includes deepening and widening the port,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “This additional federal help will enhance the Port of Mobile, and I commend Sen. Shelby for his leadership in securing additional funds.

“The Port of Mobile plays a significant role in expanding Alabama’s global footprint. Our Port, being one of the largest in the nation, ensures that our Made in Alabama brand is recognized worldwide,” Ivey added.

Inside Alabama Politics previously reported that State Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, was instrumental in securing port money from the gas tax plan, an idea that wasn’t initially popular with lawmakers.

“The port has driven our economy for over 100 years,” Pringle said. “Thanks to Sen. Shelby’s work, we can now extend the viability of this economic engine for another 100 years. The impact of this achievement for Southwest Alabama and our entire state can not be understated. Sen. Shelby has allowed us to invest in Alabama’s future and create economic opportunities for many generations to come.”

Katie Boyd Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, which pushed the infrastructure plan, said Alabama’s investment was noticed nationally and globally.

“What fantastic news,” Britt said.  “Alabama’s business community is grateful for Sen. Richard Shelby and the years of work he has put into the deepening and widening of the Mobile shipping channel. Taking Alabama’s port to the next level will truly be a transformative project for our economy statewide.

“When looking to make an investment, most companies and organizations want to know you are willing to make an investment in yourself. This past legislative session, Gov. Kay Ivey and state lawmakers demonstrated to the federal government and companies worldwide that we are willing to invest in ourselves with the passage of the Rebuild Alabama Act, which steered critical infrastructure revenue toward the port project,” Britt said. “From Montgomery to Washington, we are working together to move Alabama’s economy ahead, and BCA is proud to play a role in encouraging that synergy.”