Oct 19 2006

Choctaw Point terminal promising

Mobile Press Register

By KAIJA WILKINSON

It was a scene uniquely Mobile: Azalea Trail maids and a Mardi Gras favorite, the Excelsior brass band, greeted dignitaries and business officials attending the formal groundbreaking for the new container terminal at Choctaw Point.

Wednesday morning's ceremony opened on a vast, red-clay site shrouded in fog. But when the sun broke through, evidence of activity was clear, from a 600-foot dock to tons of red dirt that had been packed and leveled to make way for buildings.

The Alabama State Port Authority, political leaders and representatives of Mobile Container Terminal LLC said Wednesday morning that Choctaw Point promises to be a new hub of import and export activity when it comes online in the first part of 2008.

Tony Scioscia, president of APM Terminals North America, which will manage the new terminal, said automakers would be a "natural" fit. APM Terminals, a Maersk Inc. subsidiary has an 80 percent stake in the joint venture that has partnered with the state docks on the new facility. Terminal Link, a division of CMA CGM, has a 20 percent share of the joint venture, Mobile Container Terminal LLC.

Dignitaries included U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, Mobile Mayor Sam Jones, and Mobile County Commissioner Steve Nodine. The fog that lingered until late morning kept Gov. Bob Riley from the festivities; his plane couldn't land in Mobile.

The Alabama State Port Authority and its private partners have agreed to invest about $300 million in the terminal's infrastructure. The port authority has said it will develop a separate rail transfer facility and distribution complex.

Mobile Container Terminal has agreed to provide buildings and equipment.

Carriers will sign leases with APM Terminals, but the port authority is helping market the terminal "to everybody who calls in the Gulf and to carriers who we think might call in the Gulf," said state docks director Jimmy Lyons.

That includes those within the Maersk line, he said.

Maersk is often a user of its subsidiary's terminals, but not always, said Lyons, noting that in some ports more than half of APM's business is unrelated to Maersk.

"So if you ask, is this a Maersk terminal? Is this a CMA terminal? No, it's not," Lyons said. "We're courting them just like we court any other potential customers."

Frank Baragona, president of CMA CGM (America) Inc., said that announcements of service options will likely come in mid-2007, and that customers will follow.

Lyons said that New Orleans port chief Gary LaGrange's remark last month that Maersk's Central American line Fashion Express would likely move to Mobile was "premature."

The Maersk subsidiary relocated from the France Road terminal in eastern New Orleans to Florida after Hurricane Katrina and has not returned, but its Espresso service has returned to New Orleans' Napoleon Avenue terminal.

Port of New Orleans spokesman Chris Bonura said since losing the France Road terminal permanently, it is now looking to expand its Napoleon Avenue terminal in Uptown and is seeking $150 million to $170 million in state and federal money to do so.

Bonura said the port is back to its pre-Katrina tonnage, growth mostly from steel shipments, and is confident it won't lose customers to Mobile.

He said that factors like growing demand and the proposed expansion of the Panama Canal will help both New Orleans and Mobile prosper.

Lyons said the terminal wants carriers running Central American, Mediterranean and Northern European routes.

Specific European offerings could attract auto business, he said. "Senator Shelby mentioned Mercedes, and right now they bring in engines and transmissions, but they have to have a pretty much reliable, fixed-day type service, which we don't have here" he said.

The port currently offers eight- to 12-day service, so Mercedes ships through the Port of Charleston, he said.

Lyons said he hopes the new terminal will have a fixed-day European service to fit Mercedes' needs, and that he and APM are in talks with several carriers active in European trade.

APM Terminals' Scioscia said that worldwide container volume is expected to double by 2017, which means traditional ports on the West and East coasts will be squeezed, turning carriers toward Mobile.

The docks can handle 75,000 standard-size container units per year, and the Choctaw Point terminal would increase that to more than 700,000 container units, Lyons said.