TOPICS > Politics

Increased Decay Strains Budget-strapped New Orleans Port

October 21, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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Even before Hurricane Katrina, the structural flaws of the port of New Orleans, combined with increased shipping volume, strained the infrastructure resource. Ray Suarez examines the port's struggle to fund improvements and keep up with its competition.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, part two of our weeklong series on infrastructure, “Blueprint America.”

As the country struggles with the financial crisis, it also faces some critical choices, what to do about old infrastructure.

Last night, we focused on crumbling roads and bridges. For tonight’s edition, I traveled to New Orleans for a look at one of America’s aging ports and how to modernize it.

This series was produced in collaboration with WNET in New York.

This place, locals like to say, has been at the epicenter of American history ever since a Frenchman first stepped on a Louisiana riverbank back in the year 1718.

Today, the port of New Orleans sits at the mouth of the largest river system in North America. It’s the country’s only deepwater port, lying at the junction of six of the nation’s largest great railroad lines.

It traffics up to 14 million tons of cargo a year — steel, rubber, coffee, manufactured goods — and it has a direct impact on the entire nation’s economic well-being.

GARY LAGRANGE, President and CEO, Port of New Orleans: We have the best God-given natural resource of all the ports in the United States and maybe the Western hemisphere, the mighty Mississippi River.

RAY SUAREZ: Gary LaGrange is the port’s president and chief executive officer.

GARY LAGRANGE: Thomas Jefferson had a pretty good notion 200 years ago when he cut the Louisiana Purchase deal with Napoleon Bonaparte.

You can hit 33 states and three Canadian provinces without ever toughing dry land. We serve 62 percent of the consumer spending public of America from right here.

That makes us the gateway to America: Houston, L.A.-Long Beach, New York-New Jersey, Miami, Savannah, Charleston, Jacksonville, none of the other ports can boast of that.

Decay a problem prior to Katrina

Lynn Tinto
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
This is kind of like putting Band-Aids on something that's an old structure. It will keep it serviceable, but the lock really needs to be replaced.

RAY SUAREZ: But even before Hurricane Katrina struck three years ago, the port of New Orleans was decaying from what officials here say have been years of deferred maintenance and neglect.

One example: An 87-year-old lock connects the port to the 1,000-mile-long Intracoastal Waterway stretching from Brownsville, Texas, to Carrabelle in Florida.

Nearly 20 million tons of cargo passes through it each year, but the lock is too small to handle the current volume of traffic and in its current state definitely won't be able to deal with the anticipated increase in the years ahead.

GARY LAGRANGE: The entire Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard area is covered by a 12-foot-deep barge canal. This has bottlenecked -- the largest bottleneck of that entire link is right here in New Orleans, Louisiana.

It's called the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, and it's about a $900 million project now that was authorized when I was playing Little League baseball in 1956 and it still hasn't been properly funded. What's wrong with this picture?

RAY SUAREZ: By any measure, there's been insufficient follow-through on a construction initiative approved by the U.S. Congress more than 50 years ago. That only actually led to any work being done back in 1988.

Today, the project is stalled again and awaiting the results of an environmental survey.

So, earlier this summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose hands were already full dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, pumped all the water out of the lock and temporarily shut it down to repair seals, valves, and gates.

LYNN TINTO, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Regular maintenance is very important. It's like, when you have a car, if you don't do regular oil changes, and change the belts, and hoses, and your tires, one day your car's going to break down and it's not going to run.

This is kind of like putting Band-Aids on something that's an old structure. It will keep it serviceable, but the lock really needs to be replaced.

New canal will challenge the port

Gil Carmichael
Intermodal Transportation Institute
Another three or four years, big, huge container ships are going to be able to come through the Panama Canal, and they're looking at all the ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: And analysts of the world's shipping trade say that, if the port of New Orleans needs improvements just to handle today's traffic in tankers and cruise liners, then it, along with many of the ports along the Gulf Coast, urgently need to brace themselves for what's coming tomorrow.

GIL CARMICHAEL, Founding Chairman, Intermodal Transportation Institute: The Panama Canal is being widened. Another three or four years, big, huge container ships are going to be able to come through the Panama Canal, and they're looking at all the ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: Gil Carmichael is a former federal railroad administrator who became the chairman of the University of Denver's Intermodal Transportation Institute.

Our global competitors, Carmichael says, have invested far more than we have. He points to figures showing that the world traffic in containers is growing by up to 10 percent a year.

GIL CARMICHAEL: In the last 20 years, the containers have come on like gangbusters. And a whole new approach to transportation, where the ship, the train, and the truck work together has come into being. It's called intermodal.

RAY SUAREZ: Dockworkers in New Orleans say they've already started adapting to the changes brought about by container shipping.

David McGee is now the vice president of the local Longshoremen's Association. He started out 30 years ago moving heavy bags in ships' holds. Dock workers look at revitalizing the port as a way to create more jobs.

DAVID MCGEE, Longshoreman: We've made a change from general cargo to containerized cargo, you know, and automation has taken its place. It's almost like the song that they sang in the churches, you know, "Time is filled with swift transitions."

Port's repairs in need of funding

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu
D-La.
This port does not just service the city of New Orleans or St. Bernard parish or the state of Louisiana. This port services the entire country.

RAY SUAREZ: Talk to people in the shipping business and you'll hear again and again: Containers changed everything.

When these are unloaded, they'll head out of here on rail and on roads to points north, east, and west. A container tsunami will break on the ports of the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard once the expansion of the Panama Canal is complete. And the question is: Will America's ports be ready?

The port of New Orleans has a master plan to prepare for the anticipated uptick in demand for its services. It estimates that, with a billion dollars worth of investment, it can become the gateway to the Americas by the year 2020, more than tripling its ability to process containerized cargo.

Getting ready means getting resources. And in post-Katrina Louisiana, there are many urgent priorities clamoring for limited dollars.

The state's lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, believes federal dollars are needed to bring about such a transformation.

LT. GOV. MITCH LANDRIEU (D), Louisiana: You can't just rely on cities and states to do this. It has to be really a national imperative, because it is a part of the national economy and, in fact, the world economy.

This port does not just service the city of New Orleans or St. Bernard parish or the state of Louisiana. This port services the entire country.

RAY SUAREZ: The federal government, already running record deficits, now has the added burden of bailing out some of the world's biggest financial institutions. And the Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, isn't even sure he's going to see the money already promised by Washington.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R), Louisiana: Even though the formulas, the federal laws say the federal government is supposed to do these things, we can't simply wait for them to come up with their share, because, in the meantime, we're losing jobs, our people are suffering on faulty roads, we're having to turn down business.

And that's not acceptable. So we're not waiting for the federal government to pay its match. We're advance-funding the state's portion and we're attracting private dollars.

Investing in repair funds

Gary LaGrange
Port of New Orleans
Shame on us if we don't keep up the infrastructure in the port of New Orleans and then the New Orleans region as a whole and in lower Louisiana on the Mississippi River.

RAY SUAREZ: While New Orleans' many rebuilding needs vie for attention, the port runs the risk of being viewed as just one more expensive project. It all leaves the current port's CEO warning of the impact of a failure to invest in one of the region's largest economic hubs.

GARY LAGRANGE: For every dollar spent in the port of New Orleans, six dollars are returned; 380,000 people have a lively income day to day because of the port of New Orleans in this country, 167,000 people in the state of Louisiana and 60,000 people here in the greater New Orleans area.

Shame on us if we don't keep up the infrastructure in the port of New Orleans and then the New Orleans region as a whole and in lower Louisiana on the Mississippi River.

RAY SUAREZ: The expansion of the Panama Canal is scheduled for 2014. If the American and global economies have recovered by then, the worldwide growth in container traffic may resume.

New Orleans wants that business, and so do Houston, Tampa, Mobile, and Savannah, putting added pressure on Louisiana to restore this port's luster and be ready to meet even this less certain future.

Tomorrow, I'll look at the consequences of, and what may be an alternative to, urban sprawl. You can watch the previous story in this series online. Just go to PBS.org and scroll down to NewsHour Reports.