3 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

45 mins ago

Jefferson County: Recovering elderly COVID-19 patients must be returned to their nursing homes

The Jefferson County Department of Health (JCDH) is asking nursing homes in the area to take back patients still testing positive for the coronavirus, according to a letter brought to light by the Alabama Nursing Home Association (ANHA).

The leading studies available have shown that COVID-19 is much more deadly for people over 65 than any other age group.

ANHA communications director John Matson told Alabama Media Group that the new county guidelines go “against sound medical advice.”

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The JCDH cites “the possibility that our hospitals will not have the capacity to care for a large number of patients infected with COVID-19” as the reason for nursing homes to take in the coronavirus-positive patients.

According to the department, individuals testing positive for the virus will only be returned to a nursing home if two conditions are both met:

  • At least three days (72 hours) have passed since recovery, defined as resolution of fever without use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath)
  • At least seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared.

The department added that some patients may be returned before those conditions are met if their facility is able to adopt certain extra precautions.

Because the new guidelines are being issued by the Jefferson County Department of Health, they only apply to nursing homes in Jefferson County.

Additionally, patients hospitalized without COVID-19 symptoms do not have to test negative before being readmitted to their nursing home.

“For weeks we haven’t allowed family members and volunteers to visit our nursing homes, and our families understand why,” Matson told Alabama Media Group.

“Now they can’t visit, but we’re supposed to admit someone that’s COVID-19 positive?” Matson added.

The Jefferson County Health Department is assuring the public that it is following guidelines laid out by the CDC.

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

Ainsworth: A little effort can make a big difference in the fight against the COVID-19 virus

Every American was a bit disappointed when the White House announced this week that social distancing guidelines will remain in place at least until April 30, and some governors across the nation have mandated that statewide shelter-in-place orders may be enforced until the end of June.

Working from home, avoiding contact with others and venturing into public only when absolutely necessary can make life seem much like the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” Each day, the temptation to break a social distancing guideline becomes a little harder to resist and the desire to ignore protocols and immediately return to your normal routine becomes that much greater.

But facts, statistics and simple, everyday hard truths demand that we not only hold the course in the fight against COVID-19, but also practice stricter self-discipline in how we act and what we do.

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As this column is being written, Alabama is teetering on the edge of its 1,000th documented case of Coronavirus, and 19 of our fellow Alabama citizens have already succumbed to the deadly sickness.

Every indicator points to the situation getting significantly worse in our state before it begins to improve, and President Trump has ordered additional ventilators sent to Alabama from the national stockpile in order to prepare for what awaits us.

If current trends continue, Alabama’s healthcare resources will likely be pushed beyond capacity by the end of the month, and the number of hospital and ICU beds that are needed will exceed the total number we have in the state.

The good news is that Alabamians can prove all of these projections and possible doomsday scenarios wrong if we just use common sense, take self-responsibility, and follow the rules that health professionals suggest.

Too many among us are still refusing to take the COVID-19 crisis seriously, and by doing that, they threaten their own lives along with the lives of everyone they love and everyone they meet.

Since Gov. Kay Ivey declared the state’s Gulf Coast beaches closed in order to enforce social distancing, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has reported a dramatic surge in weekend traffic on Alabama’s lakes and rivers.

My family and I live by Lake Guntersville, and we have noticed the massive groups of people congregating together, jumping from party boat to party boat, and ignoring every rule about social distancing and self-isolation that the Center for Disease Control has asked us to follow.

It may come as a surprise to these weekend revelers, but sun, water and cold beer are not effective vaccines against COVID-19.

For proof of this fact, just look toward the group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students who spent their Spring Break in Gulf Shores in mid-March. Upon their return north, several of the students have displayed symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19, and all of them are currently under quarantine.

Each time an individual or family decides to strictly follow CDC guidelines and do their part in the fight against coronavirus, the numbers bend in our direction, and all of us get that much closer to safely resuming normalcy.

Assuming Alabama has a daily infection rate of 20%, trends show that we can expect to have more than 245,000 total cases of COVID-19 by May 1, but if through discipline and resolve we can reduce that daily growth to 10%, a little more than 9,000 cases will occur. At 5% growth, we have only 1,600.

In other words, just a little effort and diligence from all of us can make a tremendous difference. Social distancing is recommended because the virus that causes COVID-19 can travel at least three feet when coughed or sneezed, and it can live on surfaces for days.

The rules for social distancing are easy to understand and follow, and they require you to remain at least six feet away from others, wash your hands frequently with soap, sanitize and wipe down surfaces, stay at home to stop the spread, and self-quarantine and contact your physician if you experience symptoms.

President Trump was wise to extend the social distancing requirements for at least another month, but all of us look forward to the day when future extensions will not be necessary. To accomplish that goal, we must each remember three simple things – stay smart, stay healthy and, most importantly, stay home.

Will Ainsworth is the lieutenant governor of Alabama and serves as an appointed member of Gov. Kay Ivey’s COVID-19 Task Force.

3 hours ago

Ivey says small business owners should apply for financial relief right now

Governor Kay Ivey is urging Alabama’s small businesses to gird themselves against the coronavirus-caused economic conditions by applying for financial relief from the federal government.

According to the governor’s office, the final guidelines for how the relief is to be distributed will be released soon.

However, Ivey is urging business owners to contact “their local banker, accountant, financial advisor or credit union” immediately so they can be ready for the resources when they become available.

“I urge business owners to act today and be prepared to apply for assistance designed specifically to get them in front of the line when relief checks are written,” said Ivey in a statement.

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The main source of federal relief available for small businesses is a $349 billion fund called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was created as part of the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill.

All the loans administered by the PPP will be fully forgivable as long as two conditions are met.

Those conditions are:

  •  The loan proceeds are used to cover payroll costs, and most mortgage interest, rent, and utility costs over the 8 week period after the loan is made; and
  • Employee and compensation levels are maintained.

A detailed breakdown of the Paycheck Protection Program is available here.

The loans are available “through any existing SBA lender or through any federally insured depository institution, federally insured credit union, and Farm Credit System institution that is participating,” according to the governor’s office.

Governor Ivey’s full letter to the state’s small business community can be read here.

A breakdown of the U.S. Treasury Department’s COVID-19 relief efforts can be accessed on the Treasury’s website.

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

3 hours ago

Sessions calls for China to be investigated over handling of coronavirus outbreak

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for the creation of a select congressional committee that will lead an international investigation into China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic.

Sessions, who is in the midst of a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat he once held, has made his vociferous opposition to the communist government of China a central focus of his remarks in recent days.

The longtime Alabama elected official said in a statement that he wants a “United States-led, international investigation into what China has done and what it continues to do, starting with the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the Wuhan Virus.”

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“I am calling today for Congress to immediately establish a Select Committee on China to lead the investigation,” Sessions added.

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) have previously introduced legislation calling for an investigation into China’s handling of the initial outbreak.

Sessions’ proposed investigation seeks to go further than any that has been previously proposed.

In commenting about the Chinese regime’s relationship to COVID-19, the former U.S. Senator from Alabama said, “They caused it by silencing those who tried to warn the world, by blocking American and international scientists from coming in to stop the outbreak early, and by faking infection and death rates to downplay the seriousness of the spread. And they are continuing to use their propaganda machine to obscure the record today.”

“They cannot be allowed to succeed this time,” he remarked.

Sessions wants each of those aspects to be within the scope of his proposed investigation, and he wants “responsible members of the international community” to join with the United States to make it happen.

“We have used these types of committees before at critical moments in our nation’s history, including after the attack on Pearl Harbor, after the Watergate scandal, after the Iran-Contra Affair, and others,” said Sessions about his proposed select committee that would lead the international investigation.

Sessions also mentioned that his anger was directed at the government of China — not the citizens.

He advised the public, “We know that the Chinese people themselves are not the enemy— they are the biggest victims of the Chinese government, and exposing the truth will benefit them most of all.”

Sessions promised more aspects of his “Betting on America” plan to address the threat he feels China poses to the United States will be coming soon.

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

5 hours ago

7 Things: Up to 240,000 could die in coronavirus pandemic, WH task force explains China’s role in spreading the virus, Alabama legislature looks forward and more …

7. Seattle to investigate racial slurs

  • In response to increased racism toward Asian-Americans since the start of the coronavirus, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best has told people to call 911 to “Report hate, including racist name-calling” and police “will respond to investigate.”
  • Best said that they “will document and investigate every reported hate crime,” adding that even if people are unsure “if a hate crime occurred, call 911.”

6. SEC has canceled spring meetings

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  • The spring meetings for the SEC that were planned for the end of May have been canceled. The meetings have commonly been used for rule changes for the upcoming seasons, and coaches and administrators regularly attend.
  • The SEC said in a release that they will continue to “determine alternate methods for holding meetings important to conference operations and explore opportunities to recognize award winners who [were to be] honored at the event.”

5. Abortions allowed during a pandemic, but nothing else is

  • Despite the State Health Order to ban all elective or unnecessary medical procedures, a U.S. District judge has ruled that abortions still need to be provided during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • This ruling came after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s suggestion that all clinics should close and medical staff and supplies should go elsewhere.

4. This is the worst quarter for the market ever

  • The coronavirus outbreak has significantly impacted the stock market, and now the Dow Jones Industrial Average has seen its worst first quarter in 124 years, dropping 23.2% in the first quarter of this year.
  • This was also the worst overall quarter for the Dow since the market crash of 1987, and the S&P 500 has seen its worst overall quarter since 2008.

3. Alabama legislature meets, then adjourns

  • Both the Alabama State House and State Senate met Tuesday and then agreed to meet at a later date when it is safer to do so. Some members wore masks and other protective gear on the floor and kept their distance while huddled into groups discussing state business.
  • When the legislature returns they will have two areas of focus, according to State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia): economic stimulus and “bare-bones” budgets.

2. WH task force attempts to help the media understand China 

  • During questioning from reporters to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Deborah Birx highlighted how China’s disinformation hindered the United States’ response because they “were missing a significant amount of the data” from China. Birx added that the data from Spain and Italy tell a more accurate picture.
  • Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session called for a total reset of our relationship with China, saying, “America must now fundamentally reset our relationship with China. This is no time for half-measures or a slap on the wrist. This Chinese-made global health crisis should be a wake-up call. China is lying and people are dying. Enough is enough.”

1. “Painful two weeks”

  • In a rather grim press conference, President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force said the nation is on track to see between 100,000 and up to 240,000 deaths.
  • Trump appeared to be attempting to set expectations and show the nation the worst-case scenario, saying, “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”