MOREHEAD CITY — The coastal component of Gov. Pat McCrory’s recently announced 25-year vision for infrastructure investment includes deepening and stabilizing the state port’s harbor and Beaufort Inlet at a 50-foot depth, five feet deeper than the current authorized depth.
Transportation Secretary Tony Tata delivered that message Friday during a town-hall-style meeting at the train depot at 1001 Arendell St. Gov. Pat McCrory’s ambitious package of transportation “solutions needed to make the state more globally competitive” considers the challenges unique to four recognized regions: western, central, eastern and coastal areas of North Carolina.
Mr. Tata explained the governor’s vision for “catalyzing the economy” calls for reducing dependency on inconsistent federal funding, borrowing under “historically low interest rates and public-private partnerships with profit-sharing for investors.
“There are corporations around the world that do this. They do ports, they do this very well and that’s our thought – to put a package together with local communities and Carteret County and (improve) the Highway 70 corridor,” Mr. Tata said. “Because it’s really connectivity between the Morehead port and railroad and 70, on up to (Interstate) 95. Everybody’s got a vested interest in this port here and so we want to make sure we do this right.”
The talk comes as ships calling at Morehead City face new draft restrictions due to recent, rapid shoaling that has reduced channel depth to 36 feet at high water, down from 38 feet a few weeks ago.
Stabilizing inlets will “transform” the state’s two seaports,” according to the plan.
About 40 attended the session, including members of the State Board of Transportation, Carteret County’s legislative delegation Sen. Norm, Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret. Mr. Tata said that means making North Carolina ports more competitive to create jobs and improve the economy.
“We’ve got to get into the game. We’re at risk,” he said of the ports’ competitive status.
Mr. Tata said the N.C. Port of Morehead City is better positioned for the future than Wilmington’s port. He spoke of the State Ports Authority’s recent marketing outreach to China and plans for making Morehead City a deepwater port that maintains the “social integrity” of the surrounding communities.
“That balance, we all know is a tough thing to achieve, but that’s the goal and as we look at the two ports, Morehead is really better postured for the future than the Wilmington port.”
The Wilmington port and its 26-mile entrance up the Cape Fear River would need more than $1 billion in investment, compared to an estimated $15 million needed to take Morehead City to a 50-foot depth to accommodate next-generation ships.
“That to me is sort of a no-brainer,” Mr. Tata said, adding that other investments would be required, such as overhead cranes and facility construction at Radio Island, possibly for offshore energy exploration.
“This area is perfectly postured for some of that industry to get out there,” he said. “There are a lot of exciting opportunities and possibilities with the Morehead City port and Radio Island.
Mr. Tata, whose schedule this week also had him in Morehead City the previous morning before an Asheville stop later in the day, was here Thursday for a meeting of the N.C. Ports Authority board of directors at the Maritime Building just outside the port gate.
During that meeting, officials discussed the marketing trip to visit a dozen companies in Southeast Asia and their enthusiasm for the governor’s investment plan. Discussion included the new post-Panamex vessels that are already calling at East Coast ports and how failing to prepare would hurt North Carolina competitively. Post-Panamex vessels are those ships that do not fit the Panama Canal because of their large size.
Also during that meeting, a report on channel-dredging needs focused on the shoaling in Beaufort Inlet. The area of concern is a “finger” of shoaling extending into the Cutoff Channel from Shackelford Banks. In addition to the draft restriction, the 600-foot-wide channel is effectively narrowed to less than 300 feet – a big change from late August and early September.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the channel, has about $5 million in maintenance funds, compared to about $6 million in the prior year. Officials said the decrease was reflective of the situation nationwide, but the problem is “acute” at the port here.
The authority is also considering a request to realign the channel to make better use of natural deep water and use more stable conditions.
Rep. McElraft, during Mr. Tata’s visit Friday, expressed concern that dredging at the port not jeopardize the county’s other economic engine, area beaches.
“I couldn’t help but key in on the deepening of the port, which is very important to us, but I want you all to remember that $15 million has another economic impact also. That’s the erosion of our beaches,” she said. “Because we’ve seen the deeper the port gets, the more erosion we have on the beaches.”
She said assurances are needed that beaches will continue to be nourished and erosion mitigated and those expenses should be factored into the cost.
“Because that’s going to be a higher price, truly, because of our beaches,” Rep. McElraft said. “Tourism is huge for us."
Contact Mark Hibbs at 252-726-7081, ext. 229; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter @markhibbs.