NEW ORLEANS — A MASSIVE, five-year, $200 million expansion program is everything the Port of New Orleans could want: new wharfs and transit sheds, easy docking off the Mississippi River, and state-of-the-art loading and unloading technology. Now that the project is nearing completion, the only problem is that the wharfs and docks are almost impossible to get to by truck.
``It's an absolute nightmare,'' says Peggy Wilson, a New Orleans City Council member. ``We are in the incredible position of having completed a new port that will make us highly competitive and, at the same time, making it as difficult as possible to reach.''
``This road project has been just languishing,'' adds David Wagner, the port's managing director. ``It was supposed to be completed this past April, but now it's not projected to be finished until early 1996, which means we're going to operate for the next two years without the roadway we need.''
The reasons for the delay in the roadway's construction are numerous. Known as the Tchoupitoulas Corridor, the roadway needs funding or cooperation from at least four separate entities - federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as the port itself. Many people say a lack of coordination between the different parties has caused most of the problems. But others say politics is the culprit. As of last year, the city had hired more than 20 individual design consultants for the five-mile road, many of whom later contributed to candidates supported by then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.
The escalating cost of the corridor's construction and the lack of money to meet those costs are problems no one can deny, however. Projected at around $35 million four years ago, the corridor may now cost more than $55 million, according to some estimates. ``It has just become more expensive each step of the way,'' says Cedric Grant, a city administrative officer. ``There have been unforeseen costs with things like drainage ... as well as other start-up expenses.''
Access to the port is a vital issue in New Orleans not only because of the money put into the port's expansion, but also because of the money the port brings in. The port has an annual economic impact of more than $4 billion for New Orleans and provides jobs for up to 47,000 people locally, notes a study by the University of New Orleans business and economic research division.
Some scholars say New Orleans would not even exist were it not for its port: The city is the last mass of land near the mouth of the Mississippi River and historically became a likely stopping point for barges carrying grain and lumber to residents in the once-unsettled Deep South.
But because of its location, the port of New Orleans also faces urban growing pains. Port property is adjacent to the city's French Quarter, Warehouse District, and Uptown sections - all with dense populations and new construction. ``As the neighborhoods near the port have developed, there has been more crowding and it has become more and more difficult for trucks to get in and out,'' says Timothy Ryan, director of the business and economic research department at the University of New Orleans.
The corridor's value is also underlined by the growing importance of container and break bulk cargo - cargo that is almost exclusively handled by trains and trucks. Tonnage growth at many United States ports today depends on the amount of container and break bulk cargo these ports move. The city's closest competitors -
the ports of Miami, Houston, and Mobile, Ala. - all tout their abilities to handle such loads.
Despite the complications and coordination problems, city officials remain optimistic that construction will begin soon. Mayor Marc Morial has pledged to resolve whatever funding or logistical problems are still standing in the road's way. ``We are in the final stages of resolving all the problems and expect to begin the first stages of construction by the end of the summer or sometime in September,'' Mr. Grant says.
But even if the city's new timetable works, the port faces a potential loss of business from truckers who may opt not to maneuver their 18-wheelers down the aging, crowded, two-lane residential neighborhood roads that the port uses.
``If the trucks decided to go elsewhere, we would lose a significant amount of business and it would be the kind of business loss affecting employment and New Orleans' overall economy,'' Mr. Wagner says.