A year ago, as military planners looked to add thousands of U.S. troops onto Guam, two critical issues loomed — the island’s aging commercial port and its ability to provide enough workers to fuel the construction project.

Now, a change to an immigration law and a plan for upgrading the port signal progress for the monumental $10.3 billion project, according to retired Marine Maj. Gen. David Bice, the man charged with leading the buildup effort on Guam.

The new immigration law, signed by President Bush last week, allows employers on Guam to hire seasonal workers for the next five years without counting toward the nation’s 66,000 annual limit, Bice said Wednesday.

Guam’s port authority has drafted a plan for $195 million of improvements needed to handle the military’s construction needs — which during peak building could increase cargo loads by six times today’s shipments, according to Bice and Carlos Salas, the interim general manager for the port authority.

"We’re very confident they will be able to meet our requirements," Bice, the executive director of the Joint Guam Program Office, said during a telephone interview from the island Wednesday.

But Bice and local officials acknowledge many challenges remain for the buildup, which is expected to bring the total number of servicemembers, DOD workers and dependents from 14,000 to an estimated 40,000 by 2014.

Guam’s aging infrastructure needs massive overhauls, improvements the island cannot afford on its own. Environmental surveys have just begun for a new home for the Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma on Okinawa, a key relocation needed to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Local officials remain concerned that, even two years after the buildup was announced, plans could change mid-stream. In testimony for the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this month, Guam Gov. Felix Camacho noted an aborted plan in 1993 that promised the relocation of U.S. forces from the Philippines to Guam.

"The potential for over-expenditure … is real, particularly since we have no control over the timing and cost of relocation," Camacho, a Republican, told the committee.

Guam’s legislative speaker, Judith Won Pat, a Democrat, has similar worries. She and other local officials say they don’t know how much of the $10.3 billion will go to facilities outside the fence line.

"It’s very difficult for us," she said during a phone interview this month. "We can handle the normal increase. Now we are all being forced to make this large development and investment in infrastructure, when for us it’s going to be very difficult to do."

The concerns are not new to Bice, and he, too, is advocating for federal money for the island to manage the growth that will increase its population by nearly 25 percent.

"The ability of Guam to sustain that impact is dramatic," Bice said, noting that the military increase compares to adding 2.5 million people to New York City almost overnight.

"No community could handle that growth," he said.

Yet, while construction and upgrade plan discussions feel urgent, the funding process remains a complicated, bureaucratic crawl.

For the past year, Bice has been working with a special task force aimed at getting infrastructure projects for Guam — such as improving utilities, roads, health care and housing — into federal agency budgets. Likewise, Guam officials have sent representatives to those same offices explaining their concerns, Won Pat said.

Bice said the task force is prioritizing dozens of those needs. The goal is to get them into the federal budget for 2010, which will be presented to Congress next spring. It’s unlikely, however, that any of those requests will be public until that time, Bice said.

That leaves many looking to the port as an indicator about how, or whether, Guam and the federal government will work together as the military moves in.

"If they need this port, it behooves them to help us up front," said Guam Sen. James V. Espaldon, chairman of the legislature’s Committee on Tourism, Maritime, Military, Veterans and Foreign Affairs. "If it’s that critical, it behooves them to help us start."

Bice says his office is doing that. The project office has sought help from the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration office, a specialty office that assists commercial ports and shipping companies with security, building projects and transportation planning.

It’s a step that Salas, of Guam’s port authority, endorses.

"I thought it was very positive," said Salas, who met with Bice on Tuesday. "Funding is the main issue. They are going to try to work within our ability."

As of this week, the port and MARAD are working toward an agreement that would allow the MARAD to oversee all aspects of Guam’s port improvements — budget, design, compliance and environmental impact, Salas said. MARAD would also help the port authority search for federal dollars; in return, the office gets to keep 3 percent of the take.

Salas said he also learned that much of the steel, concrete and other equipment needed for full-scale construction won’t be sailing into the port until 2013. It’s a relief, he said, because the improvements likely will take at least two years.

"That’s good news," Salas said. "I think we can handle that."

Port Authority of GuamAnnual budget: $30 million a year.Current debt: None.Income: Based on fees paid by shippers and private businesses.Fee: Averages $235 per container, but varies according to quantity of each load.Net income: Averages $1 million to $4 million a year, which goes toward equipment purchases.Workers: 350.

Guam’s only commercial port brings in about 100,000 ship containers each year. As the military expands on the island, that number will grow to at least 200,000 containers a year, according to Carlos Salas, the interim general manager for the port authority. Retired Marine Maj. Gen. David Bice, in charge of executing the military’s buildup plans, says the port’s business could grow to six times its current rate during the height of construction.

The port is due for an upgrade in about a decade, Salas said. But the military buildup — which will require military contractors to haul in thousands of tons of construction equipment, steel, concrete and other materials — has pushed the upgrade schedule forward.

The port deals with three types of cargo: containers, cement and break-bulk cargo (the items that won’t fit inside a ship container). Guam is working with a private company to pay for the upgrades needed to improve loading and unloading cement cargo.

That leaves an estimated $195 million needed to pay for other improvements: two new cranes, rebuilding the wharf and extending it by 900 feet, adding larger apron areas and expanding the container storage yard. The budget also includes a new security system, Salas said. Environmental studies and construction would take at least two years, but probably longer, he said.

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