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May 23, 2018

International Trade

Fla. Ports Racing to Handle Giant Cargo Ships

The Panama Canal is undergoing the largest expansion in its 94-year history. Florida wants to be in on the action.

Cynthia Barnett | 7/1/2008
Panama Canal
The $5.25-billion expansion will allow the Panama Canal to accommodate much larger cargo ships, called post-Panamax ships. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2014. [Photo: AP/Arnulfo Franco]

Florida port officials say the chief obstacle to cashing in on the post-Panamax boom is the fact that not a single Florida facility can berth the big ships. And so, across the state, port directors and other officials are lobbying hard to expand their facilities. In addition to $10-million-plus mega-cranes like those going in at Jaxport, port officials say they need wider spaces to allow the ships to turn around; much larger berths; and, most important, deeper channels.

But not every port can get everything it wants. Money is the limiting factor. Florida’s 14 ports compete against one another for a small, stagnant state appropriation for seaports. They’re also competing for the increasingly hard-to-tap federal pot of money that funds U.S. Water Resources Development Act projects such as channel deepening. Last November, Congress authorized a project to deepen the South Channel at Port of Miami to 50 feet as part of the Water Resources Development Act. Port of Miami’s director, Bill Johnson, is more than a little confident he’s won the jackpot. But he could soon learn what water-management district officials in his region have from Everglades restoration: Just because Congress authorizes a project doesn’t mean it will allocate money for it.

2007 U.S. Container Port Ranking
(Florida’s competitors are in red)
Los Angeles 8,355,039
Long Beach 7,316,465
New York/New Jersey 5,299,105
Savannah 2,604,312
Oakland 2,388,182
Hampton Roads, Va. 2,128,366
Seattle 1,973,504
Tacoma, Wash. 1,924,934
Houston 1,768,627
Charleston 1,754,376
Honolulu 1,125,382
Baltimore 610,466
Anchorage 504,844
Wilmington, Del. 284,352
Portland 260,128
Philadelphia 253,492
New Orleans 250,649
* 20-foot container equivalents
Sources: American Association of Port Authorities, Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council

The sheer number of Florida’s ports puts the state at a disadvantage to East Coast rivals, most of which have only one port in the entire state. As Miami, Jaxport and other Florida ports compete for channel-deepening funds, they are up against out-of-state ports that often have one powerful port authority and the state’s entire congressional delegation lobbying for just one project.

Environmental and other regulatory issues also come into play. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has begun a feasibility study on Jaxport’s proposal for a deeper channel, has been working on a similar study for Port Everglades for no less than 10 years. “It has been one review after another review after another, and the consequence is that we’re going to lose business to those ports that are ready, from Texas to New Orleans to Savannah to Charleston,” says Port Everglades Director Phillip C. Allen.

While they wait for the Corps, Broward County commissioners, who operate Port Everglades, are moving forward with a $100-million plan to expand berths and a turning area that will destroy nine acres of mangroves. The acreage is part of a tract the county promised to protect forever as part of a deal with the state to allow construction of freight yards and docks in 1987. State environmental regulators have asked why Florida needs Port Everglades and Port of Miami, given their proximity, to both accommodate post-Panamax ships.

One answer is that “everybody wants it all,” says Wainio. Realistically, he and others say, that’s not possible. It also may not be necessary. Wainio says while investments in waterside infrastructure, land, storage, equipment and security are important, most of Florida’s ports will benefit from the coming container boom without having to dredge to 45 or 50 feet or buy post-Panamax cranes. As larger ships come into play, he says, existing, smaller vessels will be redeployed, creating growth opportunities for ports that choose not to dredge or can’t afford to.

Richard Wainio
Increased shipping capacity from an expanded Panama Canal will shake up trade patterns, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard, says Port of Tampa CEO Richard Wainio. [Photo: Andy Forbes/Tampa Port Authority]

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