US Rep. Jerry Carl said he was “confused” early in his political career as Mobile County Commissioner when he first learned 10 years ago of US Senator Richard Shelby’s growing interest in federal money in expanding and deepening of the shipping channel of Mobile.
Why, he wondered, had this project become a top priority for a senior Senator in the upper chamber of Congress?
But over time, Carl said, he realized it was a project close to his heart for Shelby, who first learned about the economic opportunities of modernizing Alabama’s only seaport during a trip to Singapore more than 20 years ago.
“He had a vision,” said Carl, who was elected to Congress in 2020 and represents Alabama’s first congressional district, which includes Mobile. “He had a passion for this port.”
Indeed, Shelby’s strong ties to the Port of Mobile will be underscored and highlighted on what will likely be his final visit to Mobile as a US Senator on December 9th.
The City of Mobile will honor the retiring Senator by dedicating an area near the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center as “Shelby Point” at 3:00 p.m. The location is appropriate as it overlooks the Mobile River in downtown Mobile, a key location within the boundaries of the Port of Mobile.
After 36 years, Shelby will retire on January 3 as Alabama’s longest-serving senator. He recently said that raising $100 million to benefit the Port of Mobile and support a new commercial airport at the Mobile Aeroplex in Brookley was “one of the most impactful” grants he has received in his long career.
“Richard Shelby was willing to step up and bring the money back to Mobile,” Carl said. “It’s important that he gets recognition for that.”
In an interview with AL.com last week, Shelby said he was “optimistic” about Mobile, praising the growing port and adjacent transportation resources — five Class 1 railroads including the CSX Mainline, Interstates 10 and 65, and the Industry at the Mobile Aeroplex in Brookley – for what he believes offers the coastal region much promise for a future economic boom period.
“The Port of Mobile has fueled our economy for over a century, and thanks to Senator Shelby, we’ve extended the life of this economic engine by another 100 years,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Shelby has also, in recent years, joined the political interests that have enlivened port officials, namely voicing concerns about an Amtrak Gulf Coast extension connecting Mobile to New Orleans. It’s a project Mississippi Republicans, like Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, are championing ahead of a likely decision on its fate by the US Surface Transportation Board next month.
A long journey
In a recent interview with AL.com, Shelby recalled his journey to securing the necessary federal funding to continue the current $366 million Mobile Ship Channel deepening and expansion at the Port of Mobile, operated by the Alabama State Port and is managed by authority.
Shelby said he was inspired by the ship canal project during a visit to the port of Singapore, one of the world’s busiest seaports, which is also known as the busiest port for transhipment – the shipping of goods to intermediate destinations before they are shipped to another destination .
“It was one of the greatest ports in the world,” Shelby said, recalling his trip in the 1990s. “They showed me how they deepened the harbor to allow the largest and largest ships in the world to come into Singapore.”
He added: “I thought about Mobile. I didn’t know how deep the (mobile) port was. 42 feet was the average I think. I’ve started working on it with my co-workers. I said, ‘Mobile was the eleventh or twelfth port in the country by tonnage. It could be better.'”
He added: “I’ve been working for 14 years to get (all things considered) a billion dollars to deepen the port and modernize the port and everything that’s going to happen. It’s happening right now. He is not here yet. But this is an example of infrastructure that will help the entire state, not just Mobile, and not just Baldwin County. But the whole region.”
Jo Bonner, President of the University of South Alabama, who served in the US House of Representatives from 2003 to 2013 and the 1 turning basin of the Ship Canal. The basin upgrade was required to accommodate larger vessels transiting the Panama Canal, which was expanded in 2016.
“That was a pretty big bounce back in 2010, but Senator Shelby recognized that this was the first step of many that needed to be taken,” Bonner said.
Additional investments have been made in recent years, including $100 million in state revenue through the state’s Rebuild Alabama Act of 2019, to be used for the deepening and widening project. The program, approved by the state legislature, funds the port project by increasing the state fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon.
Earlier this year, Shelby secured a $100 million US Department of Transportation grant that went to both the Alabama State Port Authority and the Mobile Airport Authority. Of that, $62 million went to the Mobile Airport Authority to provide critical funding for the city’s new $252 million Brookley International Airport, which is expected to be built next year. Another $32 million has been allocated to the Port Authority for a variety of projects.
“Mobile was basically what we called a commodity (port),” Shelby said. “But it has become a container port and one of the fastest growing in the country. They have five railroad lines that go into the port, the Interstate Highway, and Brookley is right off of it. You have an intermodal hub for air, rail, truck and sea.”
He added: “Why am I focusing on this? It’s a national interest. It is also a state interest. This is good for the region and good for the country.”
“Vision” and “Foundation”
In fact, the investment is starting to pay off. Activity at the port is booming and Shelby expects container tonnage to continue to increase after infrastructure improvements are completed.
Port officials, both past and present, have credited Shelby’s influence in raising federal funds to modernize a facility. The growth is exemplified by new benchmarks in the number of freight containers moving through the complex and the land acquired outside of the Mobile region.
In Montgomery, an expansion project announced earlier this year includes the purchase of 272 acres worth $2 million to accommodate a container terminal near the city’s Hyundai plant. The total investment is expected to be approximately $54 million and will be funded from a variety of sources, including federal funds. Design and construction work is 30% complete.
Port activity also includes the Alabama-USA Corridor rail project, which is a $231 million northbound freight rail extension toward Birmingham. The project is managed by Norfolk Southern.
John Driscoll, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, told AL.com last month that Shelby’s goal is never to send a “blank check,” but to “create the conditions for growth and long-term success.”
“Because of that vision and the groundwork that Senator Shelby has laid, the port is able to invest domestically in strategic, transformative projects like the Montgomery intermodal facility,” said Driscoll.
Driscoll credits Shelby in an email to AL.com Monday for expanding the port to its current $85 billion, bringing the facility economic impact to Alabama. The port is responsible for more than 300,000 jobs statewide.
Activity is booming in Mobile. In July, for example, the port saw a 35.8% month-on-month increase in dry and refrigerated cargo and a 185.7% increase in intermodal cargo. Two months later, the Port Authority announced another month for a record movement of shipping containers.
The surge comes at a time when port officials and others are warning of supply chain turmoil in other regions of the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congestion at ports in Los Angeles, Savannah and elsewhere did not occur in Mobile.
According to the latest figures from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Port of Mobile ranked 11th with 53.2 million tons moved through its seaport in 2020.
Ongoing expansion projects include larger cranes, additional storage space for containers and dock extensions. The Port Authority’s partner and terminal operator, APM Terminals, hopes to expand its capacity to 1 million TEU.
The project to expand and deepen the shipping canal will be able to transport ships of up to 14,000 TEU after its completion in 2025. (The TEU stands for a 20-foot equivalent unit, which is the standard-sized metal box that ships cargo via various modes of transport).
The canal will be deepened from approximately 42 to 45 feet to 50 feet to accommodate the newest class of container ships that will go beyond what can currently be navigated: ships capable of carrying approximately 6,000 to 8,500 shipping containers.
The port improvements also share other high-profile developments, including a new Interstate 10 bridge and a Bayway project that is unfunded but already in the development phase. The nearly fully funded airport project at Brookley will allow Mobile officials to swap commercial airline services from the underutilized Mobile Regional Airport for the new five-gate international airport terminal once it is built and opened in the fall of 2024.
“Senator Shelby’s vision and dedication helped us get there and will help us continue to grow,” said Driscoll. “Between deepening and widening the port’s shipping channel, moving passenger air service to Brookley, funding the I-10 bridge, and investing in intermodal rail, Senator Shelby Mobile’s influence has made Mobile a tremendous success.”
More on Senator Shelby:
Senator Richard Shelby will retire on January 3, 2023 after a 36-year career in the United States Senate and over 51 years in elected official service. AL.com recently sat down with the senator to reflect on his career and look ahead as Shelby retires.