State lawmakers tour Mississippi State Port at Gulfport

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - A group of state lawmakers will spend two days touring the various port facilities in South Mississippi.

Senator Brice Wiggins chairs the Ports and Marine Resources committee and helped organize the legislative field trip.

The first stop on Wednesday morning was a tour of the ongoing expansion work at the Port of Gulfport. The driving tour took lawmakers into the heart of the 24 acre dredge and fill project on the port's west end.

"And now what's happening is we're bringing in clean fill to bring it up to the proper elevation," said port operating officer Matthew Wypyski, as he explained the ongoing work to visiting lawmakers.

The $500 million expansion has undergone several alterations. Plans no longer call for a 25 foot elevation.

"So, what we're going to have is the highest point will be a final elevation of 14 feet. It will be where the warehouses, the roads and the rail are," explained port restoration director Joe Conn.

Lawmakers' questions focused primarily on job creation and local hiring.  It's a message port leaders heard quite clearly.

"I know I sound like a broken record. But it's all about jobs, jobs, jobs. We're doing everything we can to create additional jobs," said Wypyski.

Visiting legislators say they recognize the economic potential of the port expansion.

"We need to take a look firsthand and see what the needs are. We hear about it year after year, but it's good to get your eyes on it and get a good look around to see what the needs actually are. And see what type of progress is being made," said Sen. Josh Harkins, who is vice chairman of the ports committee.

One thing hindering port progress is the lack of maintenance dredging. Funding is being held hostage at the federal level and Gulfport is already feeling the pinch; losing some Dupont cargo.

"Some of that cargo is being diverted over to our friends in Louisiana. We do get some of it back with barges, but some of it, we do not get back," said Wypyski.

The new port director says there's $7 billion sitting in the federal harbor maintenance fund.

"Apparently there's a lot of money there, it's just not being distributed to the ports across the U.S. And we'd like to see that changed," said Sen. Brice Wiggins.

Lawmakers also toured Port Bienville in Hancock County. Thursday, they'll visit the Port of Pascagoula.

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