Corps Official Details Timeline For Mississippi River Deepening Project

Propeller Club of New Orleans President Sean Duffy stands alongside Marti Lucore, senior project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, following a Propeller Club luncheon focused on efforts to deepen the Mississippi River ship channel to 50 feet. (Photo by Frank McCormack)

October 5, 2015

By Frank McCormack

Over lunch September 24, Marti Lucore, senior project manager in the projects and restoration branch of the New Orleans Engineer District, offered members of the Propeller Club of New Orleans a glimpse into the path ahead for deepening the Mississippi River ship channel to 50 feet. Lucore is leading the Corps’ efforts to draft a General Re-evaluation Report (GRR) for the project.

Endorsed by the state of Louisiana and various port authorities, businesses and industry groups, the project calls for bringing the ship channel between the Gulf of Mexico and Baton Rouge, La., to a depth that matches the new Panama Canal locks, which are set to come online in April 2016.

Lucore first recounted the legislative history for deepening the channel, highlighting the fact that the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico has been authorized to a depth of up to 55 feet for 30 years.

“First thing, this project was authorized in 1985 in the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1985 and WRDA ’86,” Lucore said, referring to the Water Resources Development Act of 1986. “This is an important piece of information.”

The significance of prior authorization on the channel deepening project may be found in the saying “It would take an act of Congress,” because, according to Lucore, “The Corps does not build or do anything without a directive from Congress.”

For the Corps to plan and execute a project, the agency essentially has to wait in two lines: one to receive legislative authorization and another to receive funding.

“What we do have going for us is we already have authority,” Lucore said. “We can skip that line and go straight to the window and ask for money.”

WRDA 1986 brought the Mississippi River ship channel up to its current depth of 45 feet and also set the cost-share threshold for annual maintenance at 45 feet. Anything above 45 feet had to be cost-shared 50-50 by a non-federal sponsor (i.e. the state). That threshold was a major factor in the channel remaining at 45 feet ever since.

That changed, though, with the Water Resources and Reform Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA 2014), which raised the cost-share threshold to 50 feet. That means a huge savings for the non-federal sponsor, because annual dredging costs for a 50-foot channel from Baton Rouge to the Gulf are estimated at about $90 million.

The legislation from the 1980s called for deepening the channel in three phases. Phase one, completed in December 1988, brought the channel to 45 feet between Southwest Pass and Mile 181. Phase two, completed in December 1994, brought the channel to 45 feet between Mile 181 and Baton Rouge. Phase three—the phase currently being re-evaluated—would bring the entire channel to 55 feet, although 50 feet is the current target. The GRR now underway must confirm the project is still economically justified and environmentally acceptable in order for it to move forward.

Lucore explained the GRR process is neither short nor cheap. The GRR will estimate construction costs, anticipate the effects of saltwater intrusion, forecast maintenance dredging and seek to identify economic benefits and transportation cost savings of a deeper channel. The study is cost-shared by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Lucore urged industry leaders to actively share information with the Corps when asked in order to help the agency most accurately identify the economic impact of a 50-foot channel. The better the cost-benefit ratio, the better chance the project will have to receive funding.

“We’re competing with every other construction project in the country,” she told the roughly 100 Propeller Club members at the luncheon.

Lucore then outlined the timeline ahead for the study, which she projects will wrap up in a little more than two years.

“We just started in April and we’re hoping to finish in February 2018,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to do and a lot of information to collect.” 

The Corps plans to submit a draft report and updated environmental impact statement in September 2016. Comments will be accepted and addressed by March 2017, with a final report and supplemental environmental impact statement by September 2017. The Director’s Report will be submitted in February 2018.

Ports along the East Coast are at various stages of deepening projects, with hopes of luring the larger Post Panamax vessels to their harbors. The ports of Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Miami, Fla., all are working to approach a depth of 50 feet. If the Mississippi River ship channel were deepened to 50 feet, it would currently be the only ship channel on the Gulf Coast at that depth.