Port president blasts proposed changes to Claiborne expressway, Convention Center

Industry threatened in infrastructure plan

Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange called on the maritime industry Wednesday to speak up in defense of the port and oppose two proposed infrastructure projects that he said would have disastrous effects on the local maritime industry.

In a forceful State of the Port address, LaGrange asked the shipping community to “have your guard up” when discussing a proposal to eliminate certain off-ramps on the elevated Interstate 10 expressway over North Claiborne Avenue and a plan by the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to redevelop the area around the riverfront meeting facility.

The former project “would totally, for all practical purposes, close all of our ports,” LaGrange said, while the latter would create so much congestion on Convention Center Boulevard as to make operating cruise ships from the area nearly impossible.

“Get out there, get active and get involved,” LaGrange said during the address at a hotel across the street from the Convention Center. “And I know that these people have all the best intentions in the world. I know the people that are behind the movements. They’re good people. You know who they are too. But we cannot stand by idly. We cannot sit by idly.”

One target of LaGrange’s comments was the “Livable Claiborne Communities” study that is considering recommendations for revitalizing the nearly 4-mile stretch of North and South Claiborne Avenue from Elysian Fields Avenue to Napoleon Avenue. The study is considering suggestions to remove various expressway off-ramps as a way to restore the neighborhood below the elevated roadway, but LaGrange said such a move would prevent trucks from easily accessing the port and possibly make the trips too expensive for drivers.

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” LaGrange said of the Claiborne study. “But we can’t afford to assume that it’s not going anywhere. We need to be actively involved out there.”

That means singing the port’s praises to elected officials and people in other industries, he said.

“People in America, including the president until just recently … don’t understand what ports do,” LaGrange said. “It’s all about roads and bridges and airports but never about ports.”

The Port of New Orleans recently created an outreach program, featuring an improved website and social-media and advertising campaigns, to tout its economic impact and that of the state’s maritime industry as a whole.

The New Orleans port has a $17 billion annual impact on the nation’s economy, resulting in $3 billion in federal taxes and 380,000 jobs, LaGrange said.

“There’s a lot of people out there — I was told not to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway — who intentionally or unintentionally are not in it for the good of the port,” LaGrange said. “They may not intend it to be anything negative for the maritime industry or the port, but it comes out that way. And it causes us to have to spend a lot of our energy, a lot of our resources and a lot of time being on the defense all the time.”

LaGrange said the port recorded its fifth straight year of increased cargo in fiscal year 2013 and its third consecutive year of record-breaking traffic.

That growth was driven mainly by containerized cargo, he said, but break bulk cargo, meaning items that are transported on pallets, also is up, climbing 1.34 percent to 2.78 million tons in the year.

The Port of New Orleans also has benefited from an increase in chemical exports from the Gulf region. In the first six months of 2013, the port handled 2 million tons of chemicals, about 35 percent more than it handled in the same period of 2012.

Meanwhile, the cruise ship industry continues to grow, with larger ships being added to the mix.

“All of these ship deployments show the industry is confident and bullish on our market,” LaGrange said in a statement after his address. “And plans are full steam ahead for the new Poland Avenue Cruise Terminal.”

But he said the cruise industry would feel a negative impact if the Morial Convention Center moves forward with plans for creating a riverfront park, hotel and stores at the upriver end of the giant meeting hall and making various infrastructure changes to Convention Center Boulevard, including the addition of a people-mover system.

LaGrange said the changes would increase traffic on the street and make it difficult for cruise ship passengers to get to their ships in a timely manner.

In terms of future growth, he said, the port has submitted a $66 million capital outlay request to the state, the majority of which would be used on an expansion of the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal.