$20M grant will improve rail line to port

GULFPORT

A $20-million grant to improve the north-south rail line from Gulfport to Hattiesburg will increase the state port’s capacity to ship containers by rail and also could cut down on commercial interstate traffic.

Gov. Haley Barbour said improvements along 67.5 miles of rail line are “imperative” for the port’s expansion plans and also boost Hattiesburg’s position as a regional transportation hub.

The state port partnered with the Kansas City Southern Railroad, which owns the rail line, to secure the U.S. Department of Transportation grant. Rehabilitation of the old rail over the next two years will allow the tracks to carry double-stacked containers. Freight also will be able to move at faster speeds.

“This fits nicely into our strategy for long-term growth,” said Don Allee, the port’s executive director. “Now is the time to be making these improvements. I think we’re starting early enough and I think we’re making the types of improvements that will pay off relatively soon and certainly will pay off down the road.”

Allee said the port currently moves 2 million tons a year in containers, with 15 percent carried by rail. DuPont is the port’s main rail customer, he said.

Rail improvements and a 60-plus acre expansion of the port’s west pier should be completed about the same time.

Future plans call for elevation of the port to 25 feet and further expansion.

“Everything is aimed at seeing our volumes and business grow,” Allee said.

The port is being positioned to compete with other major ports when expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014. Barbour has said long-term port expansion is the biggest economic development project in Mississippi’ history.

High-quality rail service, Allee said, is “essential” to the port’s plans. Connections in Hattiesburg allow freight to be shipped by train throughout the Northeastern U.S. and into Canada.

By ANITA LEE – calee@sunherald.com

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