Plaquemines Port, APM Terminals Announce New Plans For Container Terminal

The Plaquemines Port, Harbor & Terminal District (Port of Plaquemines) and APM Terminals, the terminal-operating division of A.P. Moller-Maersk, have announced a partnership to develop a new container terminal near West Pointe à la Hache, La., on the west bank of the Lower Mississippi River.

APM Terminals and the Port of Plaquemines announced “the execution of a letter of intent” between the two entities on January 12, the day after the port’s commission unanimously authorized Executive Director Charles Tillotson to enter into the deal. Tillotson has not released the exact terms of the letter of intent, saying the port and APM Terminals are still negotiating the language.

According to the announcement, the agreement calls for the Port of Plaquemines to own the land and lease it back to APM Terminals under a 30-year agreement. APM Terminals plans to fund construction of the terminal at an estimated cost of $500 million. The initial phase will cover 200 acres and offer 3,000 linear feet of river frontage. The port is still in the process of acquiring the land.

“The 200 acres will be sufficient to handle intermodal rail and the first berth with cranes,” Tillotson said. “Our market study is focused on about 600,000 to 700,000 TEUs annually for the first phase.”

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Tillotson said he envisions moving the majority of containers in and out of the terminal by rail.

“We’re anticipating about 60 percent rail, about 35 percent river and maybe 5 percent truck,” he said. “Definitely heavy rail, but we plan to leverage the Mississippi River.”

Previous iterations of the much-planned and much-desired container terminal in Plaquemines Parish have included moving boxes on river-going inland container vessels, namely with a company called American Patriot Holdings (APH) and American Patriot Container Transport.

When asked if the currently proposed terminal could include service from river-going inland container vessels, whether owned by APH or otherwise, Tillotson said, simply, “Yes.”

A likely condition of the deal between the Port of Plaquemines and APM Terminals is an 11-mile rail extension needed to connect the site to existing railroads and realignment of a rail line in Belle Chasse and nearby Gretna.

“One of the major milestones depends on what we do with the Peters Road rail bypass,” Tillotson said, speaking at the January 11 port commission meeting. “Today there has been zero engineering and design started on that.”

In the same meeting, commissioners endorsed the port providing $1.5 million toward a $4 million study, including engineering and design work, to relocate the existing rail line in Belle Chasse and Gretna. Jefferson Parish and the city of Gretna will provide the other $2.5 million.

“We cannot get started on the container terminal without this alignment,” Tillotson told commission members. “It cannot happen.”

Tillotson said he believes a container terminal in Plaquemines Parish would have a strategic advantage versus other terminals along the Gulf Coast for reaching markets like Dallas-Fort Worth and those farther up the Mississippi River, like Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis. The Lower Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish offers depths of at least 50 feet with no air draft restrictions, Tillotson said, meaning the largest container ships traversing the Panama Canal could be served there. Furthermore, a terminal near West Pointe à la Hache in Plaquemines Parish would be closer to the Gulf than the container terminal that the Port of New Orleans plans to build in St. Bernard Parish. According to the port’s press release, shippers would face a “3 hours longer round trip to [the] nearest proposed terminal.”

Despite the press release’s veiled reference to the Port of New Orleans’ project, which is already in the design and permitting phases, Tillotson said he’s not interested in competing with New Orleans or any other Louisiana port.

“We’re looking at competing with Texas,” Tillotson said. “If we want to compete with Texas, we’re going to have to be able to receive 13,000- to 14,000-TEU vessels.”

Wim Lagaay, head of APM Terminals’ Europe and North America terminals, spoke to commissioners to make a final pitch for approving the letter of intent.

“It’s a unique opportunity, the position of this port on the Mississippi River, the deepest deepwater port in the country with access to rail, road and markets that are currently underserved,” Lagaay said. “We can make a difference here. We’ve worked tirelessly for a number of months, dare I say years, already on this project. It’s gone through iterations.”

Plaquemines Parish President Keith Hinkley also urged commissioners to support the endeavor.

“I’m in full support of this project,” Hinkley said. “I’ve been around this for 17 years. For nine of those years, I was eight right there [on the commission], and the last year right here [as parish president]. I’m ready to see something happen. We’ve been talking about this for a long time, and I’m ready to be wowed.”

Following some discussion from a few wary commissioners, the commission voted 8-0 in favor of the agreement.

The plan also garnered affirmation from the state’s new governor, Jeff Landry.

“APM Terminals is a world leader in container terminal operations,” Landry said in the press release. “This major commitment shows the market’s tremendous confidence in Louisiana as the home of vibrant, growing port activity. Today’s announcement is a direct investment into the businesses and industries that have built Louisiana, and I look forward to the major impact our ports will continue to have on job growth and the economy here in our state.”

Tillotson was careful to distinguish the current endeavor from prior plans for port activity in Plaquemines Parish, including a letter of intent signed just two years ago between the port, APM Terminals and some other private entities. Unlike prior plans, the current one calls for the port to own the property and APM Terminals develop the facility. That accords with APM Terminals’ other sites, Tillotson said, including within the nearby Port of Mobile.

If all goes smoothly, Tillotson said he hopes to see progress on the rail extension—and the terminal—within a few years.

“We believe we will have the rail connection, the 11-mile extension, in Plaquemines and the container terminal complete in ’27 or ’28,” he said.

Tillotson said he could foresee a period of 12 or 24 months with containers moving by rail on the existing line through the city of Gretna at no more than 200,000 TEUs per year.

“Once we hit the 600,000 TEU throughput number, we have to have the bypass in order to make that number work,” he said.