Supporters have called the proposed North Carolina International Terminal “America’s Next Great Port.” Opponents liken it to the state’s costly and slow-developing industrial park near Kinston by calling it “a Global TransPark on steroids.” But the way things are going, the $2.3 billion project near Southport might never get the chance to back up either of those claims.
Political will to build the terminal on 600 acres about four miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River has been ebbing at all levels. The nearby communities of Southport, St. James, Caswell Beach, Boiling Springs and Bald Head Island fear the port will bring pollution as well as heavy train and truck traffic that will offend the tourists on which the local economy depends. Gov. Beverly Perdue did not include money for the project in her proposed budget this spring. Her spokeswoman says the governor supports the concept of an international terminal but wants public concerns addressed.
State legislators took aim at the port in June by prohibiting the use of general funds to advance the project in the 2010-11 budget. ”It’s a luxury we can’t afford,” says Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat who sponsored the legislation. She didn’t expect the measure to pass, but it sailed through the House by a 104-11 vote. The legislature appropriated $9.1 million for 17 other water-resource projects but left out the international terminal. With no funding from lawmakers, the state Department of Transportation in early July put on hold its plans to study road access to the port.
The state Department of Natural and Environmental Resources is considering whether it will provide the state’s portion for a feasibility study to examine channel alignments, environmental risks and economic issues, but it has no extra money. North Carolina would have to pony up about $4.7 million of the $10 million needed.
Even if it does, there’s no guarantee the study will happen. Rep. Mike McIntyre, the Democrat from Lumberton who represents southeastern North Carolina in Congress, turned thumbs down to the port, saying it would cost too much and could harm the environment and national security. It’s too close, he says, to a Progress Energy Corp. nuclear power plant and the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, which ships 90% of the ammunition going to Iraq and Afghanistan. McIntyre’s opposition will make it more difficult to secure federal funding for the feasibility study and construction.
Officials at the N.C. State Ports Authority, the terminal’s main champions, find themselves in a Catch-22: They need the money to do the studies that will address the concerns but might not be able to get the money to do the studies until they address the concerns. They contend that the terminal would support more than 400,000 jobs and enable North Carolina to compete for cargo carried on ships that dwarf those that now call on state ports in Wilmington and Morehead City. It could eventually handle 3 million cargo containers a year, 15 times the capacity of the port about 20 miles upriver in Wilmington.
The Ports Authority is trying to recruit a private partner to help develop the terminal, which CEO Thomas J. Eagar says would be an economic driver for the entire state. “To simply dismiss this project without thorough study would be irresponsible.” Ports officials declined to say if the agency would use its own money for the feasibility study and released a statement saying the Ports Authority “continues to believe in the opportunities and potential this project could provide the residents of North Carolina.”
Opponents caution that the port isn’t grounded for good. The next state legislature could approve funding and other members of the state’s congressional delegation could seek federal money. Susan Toth, a member of the opposition group No Port Southport Inc., says its goal is to have the property sold or made into a park — “to kill it once and for all.”