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Alabama Rolling Toward Direct Auto Export

Alabama’s port preps to become major auto export venue.

Rendering shows the proposed Automotive Terminal under development on the Theodore Ship Channel/Port of Mobile.

Rendering shows the proposed Automotive Terminal under development on the Theodore Ship Channel/Port of Mobile.

Courtesy of Alabama State Port Authority

All systems are go at the Alabama State Port Authority for cars to roll on ships and fleets to set sail, as cars become cargo. Land is secured, a timetable in place, designers are at drawing boards. Everything is ready, except funding. But that’s coming, too.

“This is not a small project,” notes ASPA Director/CEO Jimmy Lyons, about the Mobile port’s plans for a Finished Vehicle Shipping project. “An automobile handling facility takes a lot of land and a lot of money.” 

The land is there — 100 acres with expansion capability, set for Phase 1. 

Funding is expected by mid-2016.

“We need about $70 million,” says Lyons. “The funding source has not been identified yet, but we anticipate it soon.” And he adds, “After the money is secured, we will start the permitting process, which will take another six months or more.” Once the project begins, the estimated completion date is about 17 months later.

“Completion is still a few years out,” notes Lyons, about the facility now in its engineering stages. “I think 2018 is a reasonable goal. It may be sooner. But again, funding is the driver, that, and permitting.” 

But the need is great, according to the ASPA. In 1993 not a single automobile was manufactured in Alabama. In 2013, 918,000 cars and light trucks rolled off assembly lines of the state’s Mercedes-Benz (Tuscaloosa County), Honda (Talladega County) and Hyundai (Montgomery County) plants. Collectively, Bama’s Big 3 made the state the fifth largest automobile manufacturer in the nation. 

The ASPA wants to change how the nation receives that product.

Currently, Alabama’s finished cars are shipped from ports in Jacksonville, Florida and Brunswick, Georgia. Many are also transported by rail to the West Coast and moved on by ship from there. Fleets leave Alabama bound for delivery points throughout America and Mexico. Those are the port’s competitors. 

Here is the plan:

“A Mobile County shipping facility is a logistical advantage,” says Lyons.  “We can save our manufacturers a lot of money and time. We think it will be very competitive.”

At press time, the project is designed to accommodate shipping 300,000 automobiles annually. Project officials do not anticipate that high a demand initially, but, as Lyons notes, “You build for more than you initially need.” In the long run, it’s cheaper than coming back and adding on.

The Automotive Terminal is under development on the Port’s Theodore Ship Channel facilities, about half way down Mobile Bay, on a side channel, off the main channel. Phase 1 is comprised of approximately 100 acres, with expansion capability. The proposed terminal would be served by both highway and rail and would sit alongside a 40-foot ship channel.

Lyons estimates the new facility will create 100 jobs, both full time dockworkers and part time ship loaders.

Though the Alabama Port currently does not ship any finished automobile products, the automotive parts and steel business is huge. As the demand for Alabama’s automobile volume increased, so did the demand for parts. Car parts are the largest containerized commodity handled at the port. The Port Authority moves 3,000 TEU’s (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units – containers) of automotive components and 35,000 tons of automotive steel through its other facilities every month.

Parts and steel coming in complemented by finished automobiles going out, and more ships setting sail from Mobile are an enticing vision for the Port. 

“There is sufficient demand for growth and for us to grow with the auto industry,” says Lyons. “Our timing is good and this is the right time for a multipurpose facility for rolling stock of automobiles.”

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma.

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