Signs of progress are on '07 calendar

GULFPORT - South Mississippi's transportation landscape will look vastly different by the end of next year.

From a completed terminal expansion and other building projects at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, to two bridges towering over the bays at either end of Harrison County and what could be towering piles of money at the state port at Gulfport, big changes are coming.

Airport officials expect to open a sparkling new terminal sometime in the middle of the year. There will be milestones between now and then, like last week's opening of the new security checkpoint in what used to be the newsstand.

Look for the the next steps to be the opening of the expanded baggage claim area and two new gates in the middle of the terminal concourse.

Executive Director Bruce Frallic estimates 800,000 passengers will pass through the terminal in 2006, up nearly four percent from last year. They're forecasting 840,000 next year - about 100 more people per day - and the return of more charter flights, mainly from the Midwest and north Florida, will help power that.

"We think we're going to see some people coming into the market there because more hotel rooms and condos will be coming on," Frallic said. "That's the first thing that usually happens."

The airport hopes to see increased service from its carriers in connections to Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta, or by the return of Delta's Orlando non-stop flight. It's also angling to bring in direct service to Cincinnati, Chicago and markets in New York.

New facilities for air cargo, general aviation and rental car maintenance and servicing will be complete or largely complete by this time next year. The rental car companies have operated out of temporary facilities since Katrina and the terminal expansion.

Down U.S. 49, there's even more construction to do. The state port was almost washed away. Two big items will shape its future.

Port officials hoped to have their updated master plan ready for public comment by the end of the year. It will be delayed, but should be polished off early in the year.

They will be taking input not just from the port community - the stevedores, carriers, truck lines and pilots - but from citizens and the city of Gulfport as they try to mesh with plans.

The port continues to fight the insurance battle, but the pot of gold should be its share of the Community Development Block Grant money that's being divvied up. Nobody has come out with a definitive plan, but the port figures to get hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild.

Ports use a measurement called Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) for their container business. Gulfport will see between 170,000 and 200,000 TEUs pass through the port, keeping it the third-busiest container port in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before the storm, it was on pace for in excess of 220,000 TEUs for 2005 and that will be the goal for next year.

"We think we can get back there," Executive Director Don Allee said. "We've got the same number of ships from Dole and Chiquita coming in. Crowley is looking to add another ship, so we think that's a realistic goal."

The plan will lay out what they need to do to recapture the frozen poultry market after the loss of their freezer facilities.

"It's a competitive market between New Orleans, Mobile and Gulfport, but we think with a state-of-the-art facility and experienced labor force and the convenience of the port, we'll be able to get back into the business," said Allee.

The port will also start to see the return of big gambling proceeds with the Island View Casino back in business and planning an expansion by February, and retail and hotel business south of U.S. 90.

Gov. Haley Barbour and his recovery commission have nudged the port to start looking for inland terminal land to help get some of the containers off the port's property.

"I'd be happy if we can see some movement on that in 2007," Allee said. "We're certainly going to be pushing that pretty quickly."