Louisiana’s ‘SmartPort’ Initiative Lands $1.6 Million Grant

Eleven months after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards first touted the launch of the state’s “SmartPort” initiative for the Lower Mississippi River, Edwards announced June 9 that SmartPort will receive a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The state and its port partners will add $1.4 million to the federal grant for the $3 million needed to launch the “next-generation maritime technology” that will aggregate real-time data in order to streamline port operations and improve safety and harbor maintenance.

“With the SmartPort initiative, Louisiana is taking a major leading role in bringing technological efficiencies to maritime commerce,” Edwards said. “Louisianans are keenly aware of the vital role the Mississippi River plays in our history, our economic successes and our future. This grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration is an affirmation that they too understand the role that safe, efficient river-based transportation plays in the broader U.S. economy.

“With the support of ports along the river, the SmartPort program will help us set a new standard for safety and emergency management,” he added.

SmartPort, or the Lower Mississippi River SmartPort & Resilience Center, is a program of Baton Rouge, La.-based Water Institute of the Gulf. SmartPort will involve placing sensors in and around ports on the Lower Mississippi River, including on harbor tugs and other vessels. Those sensors will keep track of water depths and sediment levels to promote safety, improve forecasting and inform dredging activities. That real-time data from port administrators, tenants, shippers and warehouse, cargo and ground transportation providers will also help streamline operations both shoreside and on the water.

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In announcing the grant, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo highlighted the program’s promise for both emergency preparedness and business development.

“President Biden is committed to unleashing the full power of the federal government to ensure our nation not only recovers from this pandemic but builds back better,” Raimondo said. “SmartPort will use data and analytics to improve business continuity and preparedness, which will better enable Louisiana ports to respond to disasters and prepare for future economic challenges.”

SmartPort will include wave and shoaling forecasts for port facilities along the river to better inform decisions to sail. The program will feature a “real-time shoaling forecast tool” that will include “a suite of weather, river and road traffic analytics to improve efficiency at ports and support the ports from the threats of natural disasters and economic uncertainties,” according to the announcement. That particular feature is an outgrowth of the Port of New Orleans’ “Shoaling Forecast Tool.”

Program administrators also hope SmartPort will provide data useful for evaluating navigation, coastal issues and flood risk on the lower river, with data also used to “ultimately support efforts for the proposed river diversion project,” according to the announcement of the grant. That refers, presumably, to the Coastal Protection & Restoration Authority’s “Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion,” a $2 billion project the state wants to build just upriver from the Plaquemines Parish community of Ironton. The project would divert between 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs.) and 75,000 cfs. of “water and sediment” from the Mississippi River through a canal on the west bank of the river and into the Barataria Basin, with the hope of building or sustaining wetlands to the west of the river.

Justin Ehrenwerth, president and CEO for the Water Institute of the Gulf, said SmartPort is all about partnerships to bring a “holistic” approach to river maintenance.

“The institute is honored to partner with the state of Louisiana, our world-class network of Mississippi River ports and the Economic Development Administration on SmartPort,” Ehrenwerth said. “Together, we will create innovative new tools while leveraging decades of knowledge and investment to manage the Mississippi River for navigation, flood risk reduction and coastal restoration purposes. We look forward to sharing this knowledge with our state and federal partners as we collectively bring a holistic perspective to the river.”

Lead ports partnering with Louisiana Economic Development and the Water Institute in launching SmartPort include the ports of Greater Baton Rouge, South Louisiana and New Orleans. Other ports participating in the program include the ports of Lake Providence, Madison, Vidalia, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

“The Port of New Orleans appreciates the U.S. Department of Commerce’s support and $1.6 million grant,” Port NOLA President and CEO Brandy D. Christian said. “Each of the SmartPort initiative partners recognizes the Mississippi River as a critical economic artery that drives economic benefit throughout the state and country. SmartPort’s strategic application of analytics technology will help us all more fully and safely harness commercial opportunities while better understanding river behavior.

“We appreciate Gov. Edwards’ leadership on all maritime related projects and look forward to working with our SmartPort partners, Louisiana Economic Development and the Water Institute of the Gulf as this important initiative grows,” she added.

“SmartPort is such an innovative idea, which will enhance the ease of doing business on and attracting business to the Mississippi River,” said Paul Aucoin, executive director of the Port of South Louisiana.

Program leaders plan to issue a request for proposal in the near future for back-end platform developers to build out the system. According to the June 9 announcement, SmartPort will likely go online in early 2022.