Friday, August 13, 2010

Widening of Panama Canal could benefit Owensboro's ports

The $5.2 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, expected to be completed in 2014, "will fundamentally change world commerce," the president of Kentuckians for Better Transportation said Wednesday.

Stan Lampe told the Green River Area Development District's board of directors that in the past shipments from Asia were placed in containers, shipped to the West Coast and then sent by rail to the Midwest and East Coast.

But a new lane of traffic will be opened in the Panama Canal in four years with a new set of locks, which will double the canal's capacity and allow more traffic and longer, wider ships.

"The Panama Canal is your friend," Lampe said at the meeting at GRADD headquarters in Owensboro.

Cargo from Asia will then be able to pass through the canal and unload along the Gulf Coast onto smaller vessels that will take the containers up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, he said.

"This area of the state is prepared and ready for it," Lampe said. "In Owensboro, you have both private and public ports. That's a good thing. Container cargo is coming to your doorstep very soon. That's nothing but good for you."

"Anyone who waits until 2014 to start on this will probably be left behind," Ed Riney, president of the Owensboro Riverport, said later.

The port has been discussing building a slackwater harbor -- an inland channel for unloading barges -- for a container cargo operation for several years.

Riney said the port has completed several studies on what it would need to do to build a slackwater harbor and where to do it. And a preliminary design of the harbor is in the works.

But cost is an important factor, he said.

A slackwater harbor is likely to cost $20 million or more, Riney said. But such a harbor could handle up to six barges at a time, rather than handling one barge at a time on the river.

"But I don't know if we can afford it," Riney said.

The way the riverport envisions the system is barges could bring in containers and repackage the products there. Then, the repackaged product could be shipped by rail, truck or air.

Owensboro could become "a key intermodal hub for cargo," Riney said last year.

"It's far-fetched at this point, but the potential of containers is very significant for economic development," he said at the time.

KBT describes itself as a statewide trade group that provides education and advocacy for all modes of transportation.

"You can't put all your money in one mode of transportation," Lampe said. "You have to have rail, public transportation, air, water and streets, highways and bridges."

Counties that are along parkways, interstates or have international airports have a per capita income that's 56 percent higher than counties that don't, he said.

Lampe praised the Chamber Leadership Initiative for Northwestern Kentucky -- a coalition of 12 chambers of commerce in 10 counties working together on transportation issues -- for their efforts to bring I-69 through western Kentucky.

"It's paying off for you," he said.

Lampe is optimistic that Congress will invest more money in transportation projects despite the budget deficit and the lagging economy.

Keith Lawrence, 691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com