Alabama's only deepwater port will get even deeper as it goes forward on dredging parts of Mobile Bay. The dredging will allow bigger ships to call on Mobile, which is aiming to boost its container throughput capacity by 30% with the completion of shoreside projects.
The Alabama State Port Authority said it signed an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go ahead with preliminary design and engineering work for the dredging project at the Port of Mobile.
The project involves dredging the Bar Channel inlet to Mobile Bay to a total depth of 56 feet from its current 47-foot depth. Mobile Bay's ship channel and the Mobile River inlet to the port will also be dredged to 54 feet.
The project also includes widening three nautical miles of the 400-foot wide Bay ship channel by 100 feet to allow two-way vessel traffic, expanding the current Post-Panamax sized turning basin, and adding minor bend easing in the lower Bay.
Alabama State Port Authority Chief Executive James Lyons said the dredging is "a critical step toward realizing the port's ability to accommodate the larger ships serving the world's major trade lanes, while improving vessel transit efficiencies and safety in our port."
Construction could begin in late 2020.
Mobile currently handles ships in the 7,800 to 8,400 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) range, with two weekly services from the Far East and one from Northern Europe.
But with the dredging, Mobile will be able to handle ships in the 13,000 to 14,000 TEU range, said Judith Adams, vice president for the Alabama State Port Authority. The dredging will allow the ships to keep up with improvements in Mobile's shoreside infrastructure.
Mobile is in the midst of the third of five expansion projects allowing it to handle the larger vessels. The third project, which costs about $50 million, added 20 acres to container handling, extended the dock 400 feet to 2,400 feet to allow simultaneous berthing of two post-panamax ships, and additional fendering along the wharf.
"We want to be ready for the 13,000-to-14,000 TEU range," Adams said. "Our biggest hurdle is the deepening of the harbor."
The third phase of the project will bring Mobile's throughput capacity to 650,000 TEU annually, up from its current capacity of 500,000 TEU. In 2018, the port saw total volume of just over 346,000 TEU in containers.
Along with those improvements, Mobile's anchor container tenant, APM Terminals, added two super post-panamax cranes to its terminal last year, in addition to the existing two post-panamax cranes, and added two outbound truck gates, bringing the total to six.
The investments from the port authority aim to keep ahead of demand from shippers, Adams said. Walmart opened its sixth international distribution center near Mobile in August, 2018. Cold chain logistics specialist MTC Logistics also broke ground on a 300,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse in July. Adams said the MTC facility should be ready in the second quarter of 2020.
"We have room to grow, but that's going to be dictated by the business," Adams said. "We'll make investments as the market dictates."
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