While the sputtering U.S. economic recovery is eroding the Port of Mobile’s hopes for record cargo growth it once expected in 2013, the investment of more than $700 million in infrastructure projects over the last decade continues to pay off in terms of individual cargo segments. Steel shipments remain strong on both the import and export legs; coal exports remain strong even as import volumes dwindle; and the container trade is surging, thanks to the four-year-old Mobile Container Terminal, operated by APM Terminals.
“I think it’s going to be more like 2014 when we see a pickup,” said Jimmy Lyons, executive director of the Alabama State Port Authority. “We had a record year in 2012 from a financial standpoint, and 2013 should be close to the same thing, but it won’t be any big growth because there is still so much uncertainty lingering out there.”
Despite the uncertainty, the port authority is not backing off its investment plans. “We are continuing to invest in our coal facilities, our steel facilities and our rail intermodal terminal, which is going to help our container growth,” Lyons said in an interview. “We’ve had quite a run (of investment projects) over the last few years.”
The port authority plans to build the new Garrows Bend Intermodal Container Transfer Facility in three stages next to the Mobile Container Terminal on Choctaw Point, which handles most of the port’s container trade. It is putting out a request for bids by the end of the year to build a mile-long rail line and bridge connecting the ramp to the main track connecting with Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and CSX. The port authority will fund most of the rail link with help from a $12 million TIGER grant it got last June.
The rail project is expected to cost $31 million total, including site stabilization, the rail bridge, laying tracks and paving. Phase 1 of the project will represent about 50 percent of the full build-out, which will be completed by 2014-2015.
The intermodal rail facility, which will handle imports and exports totaling about 250,000 20-foot-equivalent units annually, will cover 62 acres and have three working tracks totaling 10,800 linear feet, three support tracks totaling 12,000 linear feet and a run-around track that will be capable of handling three unit trains a day.
“Today we’re an all-truck market out of Mobile, and the rail ramp is going to extend our hinterland,” Lyons said. The terminal will also serve domestic rail shipments to and from industrial plants around Mobile, such as 53-foot intermodal containers for long products like steel and lumber produced by Boyd Bros. Transportation. “We might pick up some business that’s coming in off the West Coast,” Lyons said.
Mobile’s container trade is primarily export-oriented, consisting of auto parts, chemicals, reefers and forest products. “We don’t have a huge retail base yet. What we need are the imports in order to position the equipment because we have a lot of (export) cargo that’s begging. So I think at some point that is going to happen.” He expects to see a revival of interest in building more distribution centers around the port when the economy recovers further.
The port’s container volumes show no signs of slackening despite the lack of retail imports. Container throughput increased by 31 percent to 190,461 TEUs in the 2012 fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2012, and continued to grow at record levels in October and November.
Mobile did not gain any new container services in 2012, and it may lose one of its six weekly calls as a result of the combination of services by Zim and Mediterranean Shipping Co. But the two carriers will use larger ships, so the volumes in and out will remain the same. Lyons has high hopes that its joint marketing effort with the ports of Tampa and Houston will pay off next year in the form of a new liner service from Asia to the Gulf by one of the Asian shipping lines the ports have been wooing. “We’ve got two or three we’re talking to that could start up at some time during 2013,” he said.