Alabama city to recognize Senator Richard Shelby with ‘Shelby Point’

US Rep. Jerry Carl said he was “confused” early on in his political career as a Mobile County Commissioner when he first learned 10 years ago about US Senator Richard Shelby’s growing interest in sinking federal money into widening and deepening Mobile’s ship channel.

Why, he wondered, had this project become a top priority for a Senator with seniority in Congress’ upper chamber?

But quickly over time, Carl said he realized it was a passion project for Shelby, who first learned about the economic possibilities of upgrading Alabama’s lone seaport during a trip to Singapore more than 20 years ago.

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“He had a vision,” said Carl, who was elected to Congress in 2020 and represents Alabama’s 1st congressional district that includes Mobile. “He had a passion for that port.”

Indeed, Shelby’s strong ties to the Port of Mobile will be underscored and highlighted during what is likely his final visit to Mobile as a US Senator on December 9.

The City of Mobile will honor the retiring senator with a 3 pm dedication of an area near the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center as “Shelby Point.” The location is appropriate as it overlooks the Mobile River in downtown Mobile, a key site within the Port of Mobile’s boundaries.

After 36 years, Shelby will retire Jan. 3 as Alabama’s longest-serving senator. He has recently said that securing $100 million to benefit Mobile’s port and support a new commercial airport at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley was “one of the most impactful” grants he secured during his lengthy career.

“Richard Shelby was willing to step up there and bring the money back to Mobile,” Carl said. “It’s important he gets credit for that.”

Shelby, during an interview last week with AL.com, said he is “bullish” on Mobile, and praised the growing port and its adjacent transportation resources – five Class 1 railroads such as the CSX mainline, Interstates 10 and 65, and the industrial at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley – for what he believes offers the coastal region a lot of promises for a future economic boom period.

“The Port of Mobile has driven our economy for over a century, and thanks to Senator Shelby, we have extended the life of this economic engine for another 100 years,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said.

Shelby has also aligned himself with political interests animating port officials in recent years, raising concerns about an Amtrak Gulf Coast extension connecting Mobile to New Orleans. It’s a project that Mississippi Republicans, like Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, are championing ahead of a likely decision next month on its fate by the US Surface Transportation Board.

the long journey

Shelby, during an interview with AL.com, recently recalled his journey toward securing the necessary federal funds to pursue the current $366 million deepening and widening of the Mobile ship channel at the Port of Mobile, which is operated and managed by the Alabama State Port Authority.

Shelby said he was inspired with the ship channel project during a visit to the Port of Singapore, one of the world’s busiest seaports that is also considered the most active ports for transshipments – the shipment of goods to intermediate destinations before being shipped to another destination.

“It was one of the great ports of the world,” said Shelby, recalling the trip he made in the 1990s. “They were showing me how they were deepening the harbor so they could have the largest and biggest ships in the world come to Singapore.”

He added, “I thought of Mobile. I didn’t know how deep the (Mobile) harbor was. 42 feet was the average, I think. I started working on that with my staff. I said, ‘Mobile was eleventh or twelfth in the nation in tonnage as a port. It could be better.’”

He added, “I worked on that for 14 years to try to get (all told) a $1 billion to deepen the harbor and modernize the port and everything that is going to happen. It’s happening right now. It’s not there yet. But that’s an example of infrastructure that will help the whole state, not just Mobile and not just Baldwin County. But the whole region.”

Jo Bonner, president of the University of South Alabama who served in the US House representing the 1st congressional district from 2003-2013, said a key part of the current project came in 2010, when federal officials secured what he said was $32 million to upgrade the ship channel’s turning basin. The basin’s upgrade was needed to accommodate larger ships that pass through the Panama Canal, which was expanded in 2016.

“That was a pretty big lift in 2010, but Senator Shelby realized that it was the first step of many that needed to be taken,” Bonner said.

Additional investments came in recent years including $100 million of state revenues through the state’s Rebuild Alabama Act of 2019, which will be applied toward the deepening and widening project. The program, approved by the State Legislature, finances the port project through a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the state’s fuel tax.

Earlier this year, Shelby secured a $100 million US Department of Transportation grant that went to both the Alabama State Port Authority, and the Mobile Airport Authority. Of that, $62 million went to the Mobile Airport Authority to provide crucial financing for the city’s new $252 million international airport at Brookley, which is expected to be under construction in the coming year. An additional $32 million was appropriated to the Port Authority for a variety of projects.

“Mobile was basically what we called a commodity (port),” Shelby said. “But it’s become a container port and one of the fastest growing in the nation. You have five railroads going into the port, the interstate highway and just about joining it is Brookley. You’ll have an intermodal center of air, rail, truck, and sea.”

He added, “Why am I focused on that? That’s a national interest. It’s a state interest, too. It’s good for the region and good for the state.”

‘Vision’ and ‘groundwork’

Sen. Richard Shelby speaks to AL.com during a Nov. 15, 2022 interview. (Ivana Hrynkiw | ihrynkiw@al.com)

Indeed, the investment is starting to pay off. Activity at the port is booming, and Shelby anticipates the container tonnage to continue rising after the infrastructure improvements are finalized.

Port officials, both past and present, have credited Shelby’s influence in securing federal money toward upgrading a facility. The growth is illustrated with new benchmarks being set in the number of cargo containers moving through the complex, and with the land purchased outside of the Mobile region.

In Montgomery, an expansion project announced earlier this year includes a $2 million purchase of 272 acres to allow for a container terminal near the city’s Hyundai plant. The overall investment is expected to be around $54 million, financed through a variety of sources including federal funds. Engineering and design work is 30% complete.

Port activity also includes the Alabama-USA Corridor rail project, which is a $231 million expansion of freight rail north toward Birmingham. The project is being spearheaded by Norfolk Southern.

John Driscoll, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, told AL.com last month that Shelby’s goal was never to send a “blank check” but to “create conditions for growth and long-term success.”

“It is because of that vision and the groundwork Senator Shelby laid that the Port is able to invest in strategic, transformative projects, like the Montgomery inland intermodal facility,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll, in an email to AL.com Monday, credited Shelby for expanding the port to the current $85 billion the facility brings in economic impact to Alabama. The Port is responsible for more than 300,000 jobs across the state.

In Mobile, activity is booming. In July, for example, the port saw a 35.8% increase for dry and refrigerated cargo over the previous July, and a 185.7% growth for intermodal cargo. Two months later, the Port Authority announced another month for record movement of shipping containers.

The surge occurred at a time when port officials and others point to supply-chain turmoil in other regions of the country following the COVID-19 pandemic. The congestion at ports in Los Angeles, Savannah, and elsewhere did not occur in Mobile.

The Port of Mobile ranked No. 11, with moving 53.2 million tons through its seaport in 2020, according to the latest figures published by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Expansion projects underway include larger cranes, additional storage space for containers, and dock extensions. The Port Authority’s partner and terminal operator, APM Terminals, is hoping to expand its capabilities to 1 million TEUs.

A-USA rail corridor

A container terminal operated by APM Terminals. (Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com). al.comal.com

The ship channel widening and deepening project, when completed in 2025, will allow vessels carrying as many as 14,000 TEUs. (The TEU stands for a 20-foot equivalent unit, which is the standard size metal box that cargo is shipped via different modes of transportation).

The channel will be deepened to 50 feet from the approximate average of 42 to 45 feet to accommodate the newest class of containers that go beyond what can move through currently: Vessels that can carry around 6,000 to 8,500 shipping containers.

The Port improvements are also sharing more high-profile developments that include a new Interstate 10 Bridge and Bayway project that remains unfunded, but well within the development phases. The airport project at Brookley, which almost completely funded, will enable Mobile officials to swap commercial aviation services from the underutilized Mobile Regional Airport to the new five-gate international airport terminal once its constructed and opened in the fall of 2024.

“Senator Shelby’s vision and effort helped us get there and will help us grow further,” said Driscoll. “Between the deepening and widening of the Port’s shipping channel, the relocation of passenger air service to Brookley, funding for the I-10 Bridge, and investments in intermodal rail, Senator Shelby’s impact has set Mobile up for tremendous success.”

More on Senator Shelby:

Senator Richard Shelby is retiring on January 3, 2023, following a 36-year career in the US Senate, and over 51 years in elected public service. AL.com recently sat down with the Senator to reflect on his career and to look ahead as Shelby embarks upon retirement.

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