A Decatur lawmaker wants some money from Alabama’s recently approved gas tax increase used for improvements at the state’s public inland ports and for the possible creation of cargo transfer facilities.
Sen. Arthur Orr’s proposal would take $10 million a year for 15 years from the gas tax increase that was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey this week and use it “to facilitate and coordinate inland port and transfer facility development, improvement, maintenance and construction,” according to a draft of the bill.
Decatur has two publicly owned inland ports on the Tennessee River.
The gas tax increase is sending nearly $12 million a year to the Port of Mobile, where it and federal money will pay for improvements to allow access by more and larger ships.
The Port of Mobile is already ranked 11th largest of the nation’s 60 deep-water seaports, according to the Alabama State Port Authority. When deepened and widened, the amount of cargo coming in and out of Mobile will increase, Orr said.
“If that’s the case, you’re looking at a huge increase in river, rail and truck traffic,” Orr, R-Decatur, said Wednesday. “In the original (gas tax increase) bill, we didn’t account for additional river traffic.”
Orr’s proposal would not impact city and county gas tax allocations, Orr said. The 10-cent increase, when fully implemented in 2021, is expected to generate about $320 million a year.
According to draft legislation, inland port or transfer facilities “have the added benefit of reducing truck traffic along the federal and state highways of Alabama, especially through metropolitan areas, and would reduce greenhouse emissions from heavy freight carriers.”
The bill also says a reduction of commercial truck traffic could save the state money through reduced highway maintenance.
Jeremy Nails heads the Decatur-Morgan County Port Authority, which owns Mallard-Fox Creek Port off Red Hat Road and State Docks port off State Docks Road. He said maintaining the ports and supporting their barge traffic is critical to local industries and the regional economy.
"The inland ports receive a lot of shipments from throughout the world, a lot of commodities such as steel products related to the steel-making process, and of course there’s steel going out of our community. And then you have bulk products such as sand and gravel and a variety of agricultural products that can be shipped," Nails said.
"So you have a lot of commerce that flows through the ports, not only for our local industries, but from our local industries to supply product to other locations."
He said the Decatur ports are among the closest to the Huntsville metro area, so they serve not just north Alabama but also Mississippi and southern Tennessee.
Investing in them is important for local and regional industries, he said.
"Ports are expensive to operate and maintain," Nails said. "So if there’s an opportunity to get some assistance from the state in maintaining those to keep the ports active and keep jobs here, not only at the port but at the facilities that use the port, I think that’s critical to the ongoing success of the inland port waterway system."
Orr plans to soon file the legislation in the regular legislative session. Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he’s in favor of it and what it could do for the Port of Florence. He said repairs to its crane are needed, as are road improvements for trucks entering and leaving the port.
“It’s congested,” Melson said. “They need to be able to offload and load more quickly. You’ll have (barges) backed up the Tennessee River for miles because they’re having issues.”
Inland ports need to be able to get north Alabama cargo, from coal to agriculture products, to Mobile and out to sea, Melson said.
Orr has said Statehouse leadership is supportive of his proposal for inland ports.
“All of our ports and waterways are important,” said Will Califf, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh. “We look forward to learning more about Sen. Orr’s bill.”
Orr said he’s discussed the bill with Ivey, who pushed for the gas tax increase to improve Alabama’s roads and bridges, and that she is receptive to the idea.