Vidalia sees potential in Panama Canal expansion

Published 12:06am Sunday, August 25, 2013

VIDALIA — Vidalia is looking to capitalize on an expansion that’s more than 3,000 miles away.

Concordia Parish Economic Development Director Heather Malone said Vidalia hopes to benefit from the widening of the Panama Canal.

“We are looking to explore how traffic on the Mississippi River might change,” Malone said. “New Orleans is such a big port and being able to capitalize on any increased traffic through New Orleans would help the area economically.”

The Panama Canal expansion project, also called the Third Set of Locks Project, is expected to double the canal’s size by 2015. The expansion will build a new lane of traffic and deepen the canal.

City and parish officials met with the Port of New Orleans representatives on Tuesday to discuss a potential partnership.

Vidalia Port Director Wyly Gilfoil said the partnership would solve a common problem for companies that ship goods on the Mississippi River.

“The biggest problem with containers is that they get shipped up river with goods in them, but come back empty on the way down,” Gilfoil said. “Everyone is looking to get the most use out of their containers. We let them know our plans and find out how we could develop a cooperative endeavor.”

The most likely candidates to fill the empty containers would be agricultural products or come from current Vidalia Industrial Complex tenants, Malone said.

“The containers would be filled with whatever we could get companies to ship out of our port,” Malone said. “I think it would be largely agricultural, like grain or seed. Our incoming Hinterland factory may end up being able to use the part because they ship 100 percent of exports to international markets.”

But a partnership with New Orleans may have to wait.

The Vidalia Port currently consists of an access road that extends to the Mississippi River Levee. Gilfoil said the port must receive a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before phase 2A of construction can begin.

“I am expecting to receive the permit any day now,” he said. “We have already applied, but just need the Army Corps of Engineers to send us the permit. As soon as we get it, the Department of Transportation would put the next phase out to bid.”

Phase 2A includes constructing an additional levee, extending the access road and adding a cargo ramp.

Vidalia secured $10 million in capital outlay funding in this year’s Louisiana Legislative session to continue construction on the port.

The funding is part of House Bill 2, which is a recurring bill that allocates money to various municipalities and parishes to complete long-term projects. Money in the bill is rated from priority 1 to priority 5. Vidalia has $5 million in priority 1 money — available for immediate use — and $5 million in priority 5 — which will be awarded later.

The port’s master plan may be another hindrance to the port handling containers.

The plan doesn’t include a crane in its master plan, which is essential in container shipping, Gilfoil said.

Malone said modifying the master plan to include a crane may be a smart business decision.

“Container shipping is something we hope to achieve eventually,” she said. “It may take a while before we are able to accommodate containers, but we could certainly handle empty barges.”