The Port of Mobile is positioning itself to become a gateway for Gulf Coast container traffic to and from the U.S. Midwest and mid-South in the next two years as it starts construction this year on a $36 million intermodal container transfer facility next to its main container terminal.
It's a turnabout for a port that until four years ago was mainly a breakbulk and bulk port with little or no container-handling capabilities and just one small intermodal rail service from the West Coast. The turning point occurred in 2008 with the opening of APM Terminals Mobile, which boosted the port's container throughput to 200,929 20-foot-equivalent units in 2012, up 18.7 percent from 2011. "If you look at the stand-alone number, it's not very impressive, but if you look at where we started in 2008, which was essentially nothing, we've come a long way," said Jimmy Lyons, executive director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority. "We've got a good shot at getting at least a 20 percent increase this year."
The port is in discussions with several carriers about adding calls, "any one of which could break sometime in the year," Lyons said. "The rail ramp is an absolute necessity for at least one of them."
Work already has begun on $4 million in site preparation for the rail ramp on the site next to the APM terminal on Choctaw Point, and the port in January authorized expenditures of $11.4 million for construction of a rail access bridge that will connect five Class I railroads with the facility. It also extended Moffatt & Nichol's engineering and program management for key components of the project.
"We'll let the bridge contract in the next 90 days, which should give us a bridge by the second half of 2014," Lyons said. "We haven't finalized the design of the rail facility yet, so we can't start working on that for nine months."
The port aims to complete the ICTF in the first half of 2015, in time for the opening of the new Panama Canal locks. The ICTF will put Mobile in direct competition with other Gulf ports such as Houston and New Orleans for so-called discretionary cargoes that originate at or are bound for locations outside the port's immediate hinterland. It also will put in into competition with East Coast ports from New York-New Jersey to Savannah that are looking to the Midwest for growth.
The facility, which will have the capacity to handle imports and exports of about 250,000 TEUs 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 runaround 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 rail terminal also will serve domestic rail shipments to and from industrial plants around Mobile. "We think that the combination will provide enough business to make it a viable facility," Lyons said.
The terminal will have a road gate for handling both international and domestic intermodal cargo, which would include such products as paper, chemicals, finished steel and "anything coming in and out of plants in our area," he said.
Canadian National Railway is the most likely prospect for using the rail ramp, but Norfolk Southern is also a possibility. "A lot of it depends on how much domestic cargo we can gin up here," Lyons said. "First we've got to get the facility under way, and then we can talk to people about it."