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The Mississippi River gives Louisiana an incredible economic advantage over other states.

But realizing those benefits requires strategic thinking and coordination between the various entities that make use of the river.

That's why we support House Bill 971, sponsored by Mark Wright, R-Covington, which would  to direct investment among Louisiana's "Big Five" ports: the Ports of Ϳʷ¼, South Louisiana, New Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

In recent years, Louisiana's biggest ports have been eclipsed by other Southern ports that have seen faster growth. The Port of Houston surpassed the Port of South Louisiana for waterborne tonnage in 2019, and the Port of New Orleans has fallen behind the Port of Mobile for container traffic, due in large part to slow growth in container traffic in New Orleans.

Part of the reason for slow growth has been the lack of statewide coordination: Witness last year's much-criticized and now apparently shelved proposal by the Port of South Louisiana to purchase the Avondale shipyard for nearly half a billion dollars, despite the fact that the latter is actually in the Port of New Orleans' jurisdiction. And there are competing plans to construct large container terminals by the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Plaquemines.

This sort of conflict only benefits Louisiana's real competitors elsewhere.

Two laws passed last year — one by Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Harvey, and another by Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington — created an advisory commission and a new office within Louisiana Economic Development to help spur port development.

Wright's bill would supplant those laws and create a 13-member commission within the executive branch of government. The commission, of which nine members would be appointed by the governor, would be an important voice in strategically directing funding and investment across the state's ports, though it wouldn't affect how the five port boards operate. The new body would also coordinate spending to meet Louisiana's sprawling transportation infrastructure needs. 

Gubernatorial appointments would include members from the Louisiana Railroads Association and the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, key stakeholders in helping to maximize Louisiana's port usage.

Coordinating spending to boost Louisiana's largest ports is critical at a time when international shipping is a key crux of not just the global economy, but the state and local ones as well. Louisiana's ports already account for nearly one in five jobs in the state; making them more competitive and boosting growth has the potential to have a game-changing impact. 

We agree with the industry groups, who have long called for the creation of such a body, and Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack, the Legislature consider it as part of an informational report he produced about Louisiana's ports in January. 

The river's importance to Louisiana cannot be overstated. But it's on us to make the best use of it.