Port Improvements Could Increase Traffic

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WILMINGTON -- To try to build on increased traffic at North Carolina's ports, the N.C. State Ports Authority and the area's elected officials are pushing for a major overhaul of the Wilmington port's aging infrastructure.

And, to give the ports a more predictable source of revenue, state Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, said he and Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, have worked to have annual stipends of $35 million included in the state's proposed biennial budget for 2015-17 for projects to improve a docking berth and build two new cranes to handle additional container ship traffic.

"I think the idea is to fund the port improvements through the budget rather than the bond," Lee said. "Hopefully, these numbers will stay intact through the budget process and I think they will."

Cliff Pyron, communications manager for the ports authority, said the Wilmington port's projects are included in Gov. Pat McCrory's proposed $3 billion bond initiative. The ports are looking to add two new cargo container cranes, costing about $26 million to $30 million, and demolish and replace a docking berth for large container vessels at a cost of about $32 million to $36 million, Pyron said.

But Lee said he is looking to include the projects in the budget so the port can address what Lee, a former chairman of the Ports Authority Board, said is a list of needed projects, including the berth and cranes. He said it is possible that the port could receive annual appropriations beyond the next budget.

"There is a backlog of immediate needs where we need an annual appropriation to take care of them," he said. "If there is a justification for an annual appropriation, we need to address that over the next couple of years. Right now, we're just trying to play catch up."

The budget was supposed to have been adopted by June 30, but the legislature and McCrory agreed to a continuing resolution to keep the government running until Aug. 14.

Pyron said no official request has been made by the ports for an annual stipend.

The ports are "concentrating on the support we are receiving now and we're incredibly grateful for that support," he said.

He said the new docking station is needed to replace berth 8, a container berth built in the early 1970s.

"It's really just been overworked and overused for years," he said. "To entice another carrier here, the replacement of berth 8 is absolutely critical."

Improving the ports also has the support of state Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover.

"Until we do that, we are limited in our competitiveness to attract new container ships," she said. "I think it's overdue."

Other projects on the wish list include a new rail line for the entire 645-foot width of berth 8 and about 100 feet of rail line into berth 7 as well as a submerged toe wall at berth 9 to increase stability at lower depths, he said.

Pyron said the requests come following a 2014-15 fiscal year that "is expected to be a record year" for container volume handled by the state's ports.

"The underlying thing here is to meet customer demands," he said.

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 Contact Tim Buckland at 910-343-2217 or Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com