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Audit report recommends master plan for Louisiana’s ports

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(The Center Square) — Louisiana could better address a number of challenges facing the state’s ports through statewide coordination using a master plan, according to a new report.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack issued a report last week that compares the state’s 32 active public ports to those operated in eight other southern coastal states. Louisiana was ranked first for waterborne tonnage passing through its ports until 2019, when it was surpassed by Texas.

Eight of the state’s ports were ranked in the top 100 in 2021, when Louisiana ranked second for total freight moved by land, air and water, behind only Texas. The Port of New Orleans, the state’s only international container terminal, ranked 17th in the nation for volume in 2021.

Auditors found Louisiana’s port governance structure differs from the eight other states reviewed, which all use a state port authority or dedicated state-level organization to guide planning and coordination.

“While Louisiana does not have a state port authority that owns and/or operates its own ports or an active port advisory commission, having some type of state coordinating entity could help infrastructure development and planning for ports in Louisiana,” auditors wrote.

It’s the same with a master or strategic plan. All states reviewed except Louisiana use one.

“Having some type of state master or strategic plan could help the port system coordinate its efforts to drive economic development in the state,” according to a report summary.

In terms of finances, Louisiana’s established program to help fund its ports produced more funding than Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina but less than Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia in fiscal years 2022 through 2024. Between 2018 and 2023, Louisiana invested $323.6 million in port infrastructure, or about $53.9 million a year on average.

“While some large ports have sizable staff and may employ in-house grant writers, small ports may only have a few or even no full-time employees, which can make it challenging for them to apply for federal funding,” auditors wrote. “The Legislature may wish to require the Office of Port Development … to provide technical assistance to ports on obtaining funding.”

Other challenges cited in the report include a $20 billion backlog of transportation needs, natural disasters, disruptions from extreme high- and low-water levels, and the high cost of property insurance.

“Louisiana has the second-largest inland navigable waterway system in the nation, but according to a study completed in 2023, waterborne transportation is currently underutilized in terms of unrealized potential and capacity,” the report read.

Assessing the economic impact of the state’s ports could also be beneficial when prioritizing port funding, as Louisiana currently does not evaluate the impacts of completed projects, auditors wrote.

“According to survey responses, improving the Louisiana public ports system requires collaboration among ports, governmental agencies, and relevant stakeholders,” the report read. “By acknowledging and addressing challenges, Louisiana ports can enhance their competitiveness, improve operational efficiency, and ensure sustainable growth in the face of evolving market conditions and environmental risks.”

Lawmakers last year established the Office of Port Development within the Louisiana Department of Economic Development to boost growth in the state’s ports. The legislation sets a deadline of July 1 to launch but did not provide funding. The legislation tasked the office with developing an operational plan, as well as proposed legislation for 2024.