8 months ago

‘Champion’ Richard Shelby secures potential funding to complete Mobile Harbor improvements

The U.S. Senate on Thursday gave final passage to a domestic appropriations package that will fund the government through the end of Fiscal Year 2020, with Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) once again delivering in a historic way for his home state.

Shelby, as the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, served as a lead negotiator on the funding measure, which represents compromise between the Senate and House as well as Republicans and Democrats.

While Shelby scored major victories for Alabama in both this funding measure and a companion defense package, one major achievement has flown under the radar until now.

Yellowhammer News has learned that funding that could complete the deepening and widening of the Port of Mobile is included in the domestic appropriations package – H.R. 1865. Specifically, the FY20 Energy and Water Development Bill includes a new regional dredge demonstration program for the Central Gulf Coast which will explore innovative ways of executing dredging in a logical and sequenced manner to seek efficiencies, cost savings and minimize disruptions to critical construction and maintenance dredging requirements across the nation.

H.R. 1865 passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly 71-23 vote. H.R. 1158, the national security funding measure, is expected to pass the Senate later Thursday.

The funding packages, which passed the House on a bipartisan basis earlier this week, will now go to President Donald Trump’s desk. He is expected to sign them.

While the Army Corps of Engineers will still have to allocate the funding in the work plan and award a contract for the dredging following H.R. 1865 being signed, the Port of Mobile is eligible for inclusion in this program. This significant funding would allow the Corps to complete the Port of Mobile project that Shelby has been championing for years.

Not only has Shelby tirelessly worked in Congress to secure federal funding, but he helped bring more in-state elected officials and stakeholders on board this spring. After his advocacy, Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) in March signed into law the Rebuild Alabama Act, a bipartisan measure overwhelmingly passed by the Alabama state legislature that allocates a small portion of state fuel tax proceeds to support approximately $150 million in bonds to meet the federal cost-share requirements for the harbor project. This also came after Shelby spearheaded federal legislation to passage that increased the federal government’s share of the funding from 50% to 75%, lowering the burden on the state.

“The deepening and the widening of the Port of Mobile is a once-in-a-lifetime economic development opportunity,” Shelby has said. “This project has the ability to transform Mobile and our state’s economy for the next one hundred years.”

In an interview with Yellowhammer News this week, Alabama State Port Authority director and CEO James K. “Jimmy” Lyons said, “We’re very thankful for everything Senator Shelby has done for us over the years. He’s a big, big advocate of Alabama, and he recognizes the value that a competitive seaport has for the state. He’s put his money where his mouth is — he’s been our biggest advocate.”

The Alabama State Port Authority represents the State of Alabama’s public, deep-water terminals serving general cargo, container, over-dimensional and bulk cargoes supporting over 134,600 jobs and $22.4 billion in economic impact to the state.

Status of the project

This fall, Lyons and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district commander Colonel Sebastien Joly signed the Mobile Harbor Pre-Construction, Engineering and Design Agreement. This came soon after the project, which will upgrade Mobile Harbor to accommodate larger vessels and improve transit efficiencies at Alabama’s only deep-water seaport, received federal authorization.

The engineering and design phase establishes the construction parameters to deepen and widen at the Port of Mobile, which is integral to the entire state’s economy.

Under the corps’ record of decision issued in early September, the project will deepen the existing bar, bay and river channels by five feet each to a project depth of 50 feet (15.24m), with additional depths for wave allowances, advanced maintenance and allowable over depth for dredging (total depths of 56, 54 and 54 feet, respectively).

The project also includes widening the bay channel by 100 feet (328.08m) for three nautical miles to accommodate two-way vessel traffic and other safety improvements.

Construction on the modifications is expected to begin in late 2020. However, to finish the project, the final slice of federal funding will still be needed.

Lyons explained the possibilities brought about by the Shelby-negotiated FY 2020 funding measures.

Of the new regional dredge demonstration program funding, Lyons advised, “There could be several ports that are eligible.”

“But we will be certainly one of those,” he continued, “and we think that we could compete very well considering where we are and the fact that we have a record of decision, we have a permit in hand, the engineering is underway. So, we’re about as shovel ready as you can be as far as a project of this nature is concerned. We think that we should be able to compete very well for it. There’s no guarantee, but we think we would be well-positioned to participate in that.”

Lyons added that there is “a number of other things” made available in the funding measures the Port of Mobile could take advantage of.

“There’s a lot of things in there for ports that of course Shelby had a lot to do with,” he noted, detailing funding under the EPA that could go towards more diesel emissions reductions for the Port Authority’s locomotives as well as general port infrastructure and maintenance dredging monies the Port Authority will be able to apply for.

“What Shelby’s done this year has been absolutely magnificent,” Lyons explained. “The whole port industry is really abuzz about the bills this year that relate to things that we do. And certainly here in Mobile, we’re well positioned to compete and take advantage of these opportunities.”

Growth begets growth

The Port of Mobile is now the 11th largest seaport in North America by overall tonnage and has been one of the fastest-growing in recent years.

Since its opening in 2008, Alabama’s container terminal at the Port of Mobile has been recognized for overall containerized cargo growth among North American ports, including fastest growth port in 2016, top-five fastest growth ports in 2017 and fastest growth import port in 2018.

Five container services now call at the Port of Mobile’s APM Terminals. The port handled 245,884 loaded TEU in the first nine months of this year, an incredible 32.7% increase over the same period last year, according to PIERS.

And this does not even account for the tremendous impact that the coal industry has on the Port of Mobile. The port’s McDuffie Coal Terminal generates approximately 50% of the total annual revenue earned by the Alabama State Port Authority for its overall operations at the port.

In 2018 alone, 11 million short tons of high-quality Alabama-mined met coal was exported to global steelmakers. This amounted to $2 billion worth of met coal being shipped out through the Port of Mobile last year – a dollar amount unprecedented in at least recent history.

Overall, the harbor improvement project is keeping pace with ongoing terminal investments in the Yellowhammer State’s seaport to ensure economies of scale and competitive rates for the seaport’s shippers.

The port authority will complete its $50 million, Phase 3 container terminal expansion in early 2020 delivering another 20 acres of handling yard and extending the dock to allow simultaneous berth of two Post-Panamax sized ships. The project complements prior investments totaling $450 million in marine and rail container intermodal facilities that include two Super Post-Panamax and two Post-Panamax ship to shore gantry cranes.

“The deepening and improvements to the harbor will help us be more competitive,” Lyons explained. “We should be the first port in the U.S. Gulf to get 50 feet of draft. It’s a significant thing for Alabama.”

The impact of the Port of Mobile and the harbor project is truly statewide, he outlined. From poultry farming to lumber and paper products to automotive manufacturing, important sectors across the state will reap the rewards.

‘The champion’

While Shelby has referred to the project as “a game-changer,” it has been Alabama’s senior senator helping make the port’s boon possible every step of the way.

Lyons was profuse in his praise for Shelby.

“Shelby has been one of our biggest champions,” Lyons underlined. “There’s a lot of things that have happened here that probably couldn’t have happened — or couldn’t have happened to [the same] scale — [without him]. Our container facility, our intermodal facility, he was the champion. I’ve been here for a little over 20 years, I’ve been working with him my entire time here. And he has been a steadfast champion and believer of the port and what the port does for the state of Alabama.”

In a statement after H.R. 1865 passed on Thursday, Shelby said, “This project is not only of great importance to me, but it will allow for more goods to be shipped and sold from our state, extending benefits throughout Alabama while creating more economic opportunities. I am exceptionally proud that funding is included in this appropriations package, and I look forward to the immeasurable impact this project will have on our state once completed.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

Ledbetter: Alabama’s teachers are standing tall with return to classroom instruction

All of the personality traits, values and life lessons that we carry with us as adults were shaped and instilled in us by the people we encountered in childhood. For many, the strongest influences came from our schoolteachers, who opened new worlds of knowledge and taught us skills that remain with us today.

Consider for a moment the music teacher who taught you to play an instrument, the math teacher who led you to a love of numbers, the history teacher who brought to life the stories of our nation’s past, or the English teacher who inspired you to love great literature.

Teaching is one of the few professions whose impact continues to last for decades after the individual who does the job retires.

As many children across Alabama are preparing to return to school even while the coronavirus pandemic continues, teachers have never been more important or vital or deserving of our deepest appreciation.

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Returning to brick-and-mortar school instruction will, hopefully, restore a sense of normalcy to our children’s lives in these decidedly abnormal times.

A return to the classroom and even resuming the online instruction that some are adopting will also help our students maintain their education progress and continue the important social and emotional development that interaction with their peers and instructors allows.

Our English second language learners will receive the communication skills they need in order to better assimilate, and many low-income students will receive the healthy nourishment from the school lunch program that might be denied them at home.

Given the current circumstances and environment, I recognize that some of our public school employees may have a sense of trepidation about returning to school, and that is certainly understandable. Wearing a face mask to do something as simple as shopping for groceries, paying for gas or walking into a restaurant offers all of us a constant reminder that COVID-19 is a very contagious virus.

But our teachers and educators are setting their concerns aside and answering the call to duty.

I know that Gov. Kay Ivey, State Superintendent Eric Mackey and the staff of the Alabama Department of Education took great care in developing the “Roadmap to Reopening Alabama Schools,” and local school boards are being equally diligent in creating and implementing their own safety guidelines.

The importance of sanitization will be stressed more than ever before, and billions of dollars made available to Alabama through the federal CARES Act will help ensure that any resources that are needed to reopen schools safely will be readily available.

As the majority leader of the Alabama House, I can also offer assurances that the legislature stands ready to pass legislation or make appropriations that are necessary to ease the return to classroom instruction once we are in session.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an even deeper appreciation of the frontline heroes who have remained on the job and provided the most essential services throughout the crisis.

Doctors and nurses in our hospitals and health clinics; grocery store and other retail employees; law enforcement officers, emergency workers and firefighters; postal workers; sanitation workers; restaurant personnel; and those in dozens of other professions are among those who continued working even when times were their toughest.

I am proud to say that the teachers, school nurses, administrators and support personnel in Alabama’s schools also rank high upon the list of those who have stood tall, and their already invaluable service to our state is even more important to students and parents in each of our cities, towns and crossroads today.

Helen Keller, one of Alabama’s most inspirational figures, once said, “It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.”

As I close by wishing everyone a safe, happy and healthy school year, we would all do well to keep Helen Keller’s words in mind.

State Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) serves as majority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives

5 hours ago

Alabama Ag Commissioner Pate gives update on unsolicited seed packages from China, urges public to stay ‘vigilant’

MONTGOMERY — Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) Commissioner Rick Pate gave an update Monday afternoon on the spate of seed packets from China that people across Alabama have received in recent weeks despite never having ordered anything.

Pate said that after the state seed labs had performed tests on the packets they had collected from individuals across Alabama, and none of them proved to be dangerous.

“Right at 50% of them proved be some kind of weed flower … 41% were vegetables, and 9% were herbs … we found no noxious compounds, no dangerous compounds,” said Pate at the event.

However, he warned, “They might send out the first seeds that weren’t treated with anything, have a sense of security come about, and then later send something out that could be harmful.”

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The commissioner further urged members of the public to refrain from planting any unsolicited seeds and continue to report them to the Department.

“At the very least something criminal has gone on here,” stated Pate, referencing laws that prevent seeds from being moved across state lines without being inspected by the relevant agencies.

Pate said his department had collected 252 seed samples as of Monday morning.

A total of 385 individuals in all but 11 of Alabama’s 67 counties have received one of the packets, according to information relayed at the press conference. State workers will be collecting the remaining samples soon.

(AL. Dept. of Ag/Contributed)

“Because we’ve got such a good food and drug lab, because we’ve got such a good seed lab, we knew this was inside of our comfort zone,” Pate said of the decision to conduct the seed tests in-house as opposed to shipping them to the federal government.

Andy Tipton, division director of Food Safety and Ag Compliance, said that 25 states had reported similar seed packets showing up at consumers’ doorsteps. He added that the ADAI was turning over all relevant info to the FBI, who were monitoring the situation.

Pate further told Yellowhammer News that one of the prevailing theories remained that the cause was an internet seller running a scam to artificially inflate their customer numbers and create opportunities for fake reviews.

He ended his press conference saying, “We have no idea the reason for this happening, but it doesn’t mean we can stop being vigilant.”

Any Alabamian still receiving one of the packets can report it here.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

6 hours ago

Alabama basketball star John Petty returning for senior season

University of Alabama star forward John Petty, Jr. will return for his senior season, the player announced on Monday.

The Huntsville native was a second-team All-SEC honoree this past season, after leading the Southeastern Conference in three-point percentage.

Petty was considering entering the 2020 NBA Draft, however he decided to return for a final season in Tuscaloosa after evaluating his prospects. Another college season could see Petty lock down his chance at being a first-round pick.

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Tide head coach Nate Oats released a statement on Monday afternoon celebrating Petty’s return.

“It’s great to have John back for his senior year,” Oats said. “He is certainly one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country which is extremely important to us with how we play.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal. Let’s get to work!” the coach concluded.

Follow along with the Bama men’s basketball program here.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

6 hours ago

State of Alabama, University of Alabama System officials unveil GuideSafe app aiming to keep schools virus-free

Key figures from Alabama’s government and university systems joined to announced the new GuideSafe platform that bills itself as the key for students to safely return to college campuses amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The GuideSafe platform will help the state fulfill its promise to test every single college student before they return to campus, and the platform will provide a space for ongoing health monitoring throughout the semester.

The unveiling took place over videoconference, where State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John and other key players detailed the importance of GuideSafe to the upcoming semester.

GuideSafe was developed by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and tech company MotionMobs. It will be provided to any educational institution in the state that wishes to use it.

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Governor Kay Ivey apportioned some of Alabama’s CARES Act funds for the development of GuideSafe and the universal free testing for college students.

St. John on Monday praised Ivey’s “decisive action to provide funding” for the testing initiative and other campus reopening measures.

(Click for higher resolution version that will open in new tab)

GuideSafe will be accessible via app on smartphones and tablets and via web browser on any computer. Students will be invited to join the platform in the coming weeks.

One of the key features of the GuideSafe app is that it will track the location of students via smartphone and then inform them if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall,” said UAB President Ray Watts.

The app also allows students and faculty to report symptoms as they experience them, and get directed to a nearby testing site if necessary.

“The combination of these tools enables every participating college, university and K-12 school to engage faculty, students and staff regarding on-going monitoring of symptoms, exposure and risks of acquiring COVID-19,” said Sue Feldman, professor and director of graduate programs in health informatics at UAB.

A general factsheet on GuideSafe is available here.

Watch:

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

6 hours ago

Trump fires TVA board chair after outsourcing uproar

President Donald Trump on Monday announced that he was removing the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board chairman, Skip Thompson, an Alabamian.

Thompson, a resident of Decatur, is the president and CEO of Corporate Billing, a subsidiary of Birmingham-based National Bank of Commerce. He previously served as the president and CEO of both First American Bank in Decatur and First Commercial Bank in Huntsville, as well as serving on the board of Decatur Utilities.

Trump appointed Thompson to the TVA board in 2018. He was elected chairman of the board last year.

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The president on Monday cited TVA’s plan to outsource information technology jobs overseas as the reason for firing Thompson and one other board member. Trump warned the other board members that they would be next if the outsourcing continued. The president also called on them to replace the organization’s CEO, who Trump said was making far too much money.

The president added, “Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board: If you betray American workers, you will hear two words: ‘You’re fired.’”

The TVA is the electricity provider for much of North Alabama. Self-described as “a corporate agency of the United States,” it is regulated at the federal level and not under the jurisdiction of the Alabama Public Service Commission.

Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-05) applauded Trump’s move on Monday.

“TVA fires AMERICANS & hires cheap foreign labor,” the North Alabama congressman tweeted. “TVA executive salaries EXORBITANT. TVA=NO competition, unlike private sector execs who compete to earn profits to earn pay… WAY TO GO [President Trump]!”

RELATED: Doug Jones: ‘The TVA has lost its way’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn