The Panama Canal is undergoing the largest expansion in its 94-year history. Florida wants to be in on the action.
Jacksonville is building a terminal to handle Mitsui O.S.K. Lines ships. The Toyko company will provide the first direct container service between northeast Florida and Asia [Photo: MOL (America) Inc.]
On a once-sleepy strip of Dames Point overlooking the St. Johns River in northeast Jacksonville, crews are busy with the biggest contract in Jacksonville Port Authority history — the construction of a terminal for Tokyo-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, which will provide the first direct container ship service between northeast Florida and Asia.
On the land, the crews are laying rails 100 feet apart for hulking new cranes that can lift up to 50 tons of cargo at a time. In the water, dredges are scraping out a turning basin to make room for larger ships that will eventually triple Jaxport’s container capacity.
Another new terminal, for Seoul-based Hanjin, is also in the planning stages — along with a boatload of infrastructure projects. Those include an intermodal facility where containers will be transferred onto trains, and a deepening of Jaxport’s shipping channel to 45 feet — by itself at least a $400-million prospect. “The opportunities are lining up,” says Rick Ferrin, Jaxport’s executive director. “If we play them right, we’ll be one of the top 10 container ports in the country.”
Ferrin’s words could have come from any port director in Florida. All of the state’s major ports are scrambling to cash in on an expected doubling of waterborne trade in and out of the state within the next 20 years. Many officials believe that they could have one of the top container ports in the country, if they only had the facilities to handle the growth — bigger cranes, longer berths, deeper channels.
The seed for the potential trade boom was planted in October 2006, when the citizens of Panama voted in a national referendum to expand their nation’s canal. A $5.25-billion upsizing will double the waterway’s capacity in 2014 — exactly 100 years after the United States first opened the water passage between North and South America and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The chief benefit of widening the canal involves so-called “post-Panamax” ships, monster freighters that can each carry more than 5,000 mobile-home-sized containers. At present, those post-Panamax ships can’t fit through the canal. A third set of locks will double the canal’s capacity, allowing container ships up to three times as large as those that can pass through today.
Currently, only about a third of the world’s container-ship capacity consists of post-Panamax ships. By 2011, more than half of the world’s fleet will be supersized, and just about all the jumbo vessels will be able to pass through the expanded canal.
The increased shipping capacity will shake up trade patterns throughout the Western Hemisphere, and particularly along the eastern U.S. coast. The project “will have a greater impact on international trade than the original canal had 100 years ago,” predicts Richard Wainio, Port of Tampa director and CEO, who served as an executive with the Panama Canal Authority for 23 years.
Other factors make the timing fortuitous for Florida. Today, most containers bound for the eastern seaboard enter through western U.S. ports and are loaded onto 18-wheelers or trains. But the west coast ports are severely congested and lack capacity. Meanwhile, the southern U.S. market is growing rapidly. Demographers predict Florida’s population will surpass New York’s by 2020. Also by that time, Asian cargo alone bound for eastern U.S. ports is expected to double. It’s much cheaper to ship goods by water directly to Florida than to unload them in Los Angeles and truck them cross-country. It results in less pollution and far less wear and tear on highways, too.
The Panama Canal is undergoing the largest expansion in its 94-year history.
[Photo: AP/Arnulfo Franco]