November 18, 2012

Southeast ports don’t want to be left out of the race for deep water as the Panama Canal expands

Florida ports are among those with plans to dredge their harbors to 50 feet to accommodate bigger ships

Two $10-million Chinese-made cranes that can work the big ships that will transit the expanded Panama Canal are already in place in the port of Jacksonville. But over the next five years, JAXPORT wants to spend $1.25 billion more to improve its harbor and dredge its shipping channel so it’s deep enough to be a gateway for Post-Panamax’s large ships.

Now, the biggest ships traverse the Suez Canal and call in Freeport, Bahamas where cargo is parceled out to smaller ships that provide feeder service to Jacksonville. “In the U.S., we want direct service and for that you need deep water,’’ said Raul Alfonso, senior director of trade development and global marketing for the Jacksonville Port Authority.

Exactly how trade routes may change after the expansion and which ports will be the big winners is the “multi-billion-dollar question,’ said Michael Vanderbeek, director of business development at Port Everglades.

“Florida needs at least two ports deep enough for big ships — and Jacksonville needs to be one of them — but ideally I’d like to see four,’’ said Alfonso. “Competition is good for Florida consumers. It’s up to each of us to build a better mouse trap.’’

Here’s what ports in the Southeast are doing to bulk up for canal expansion:

Port Everglades — The Broward County port doesn’t want to be left out of the race for deep water either.

It wants to dredge its 42-foot deep channel to 50-feet and widen it but the plan is still in the study phase, and funding still isn’t in place for the project, which is expected to cost $320 million.

Steven Cernak, director of Port Everglades, said he hopes the Army Corps of Engineers study will be completed next year, allowing Port Everglades to offer a deep-water channel and turning basin by 2017.

“We’re not just building for the expansion of the Panama Canal; we’re building for the next 25 years,’’ said Vanderbeek.

Meanwhile, the port is moving ahead with other plans to make it easier to handle bigger ships, including $122 million worth of work on the Southport Turning Notch that will add another five berths, elevating Eller Drive/I-595 to go over the FEC rail tracks — easing congestion at the port, and construction of an Intermodal Container Transfer Facility at Southport that will allow two 110-car trains to be assembled on port property instead of hauling containers off-port by truck to rail terminals.

The port donated the land for the $53 million project, which will be built by the Florida East Coast Railway and is expected to be completed by mid-2014.

Deeper channels only go so far if there’s no place for post-Panamax vessels to unload, said Ellen Kennedy, a port spokeswoman.

Port Everglades calculates its expansion projects will create 7,000 new jobs locally and support 135,900 jobs statewide over the next 15 years.

Jacksonville — A feasibility study that looks at the cost and benefits of deepening this North Florida port’s harbor is still in the works, but the federal government has pledged to complete it by April, years ahead of the previous schedule.

Port authorities want to deepen the navigation channel from 40 to 50 feet. The effort is expected to cost around $400 million and funding for it is still a work in progress. But Alfonso said if all the pieces fall into place the port can have deep water by 2017.

The federal government also has expedited review of a proposed $30 million intermodal facility that would move containers off the port by rail

“Jacksonville is a very good port for competing with Savannah,’’ said Rodolfo Sabonge, a marketing executive for the Panama Canal Authority.

The port is taking aim on Asian and European cargo that arrives in the ports of Savannah and Charleston, then hits nearby distribution centers and is trucked to central Florida. A coup for the port came in June when Disney announced it was shipping 75 percent of the imports for its Orlando theme parks through Jacksonville.

“Central Florida is up for grabs. It will go to whoever can offer the best solution,’’ Alfonso said. “Savannah knows we’re coming.’’

Tampa — The port, whose two big exports are phosphate and fertilizers, hopes to attract ships interested in an all-water route from Asia but it doesn’t have plans to deepen its channels for the largest ships that will cross the Panama Canal. In its annual report, the port says it can still handle 80 percent of all vessels in the world.

“Most of the container ships passing through the Panama Canal post-expansion are expected to be of a size our port can accommodate,’’ the port said. And if there’s a rapid shift to larger vessels, Tampa can still be served by trans-shipment from deepwater ports in the Caribbean that send smaller vessels to Tampa and other Gulf ports, the annual report said.

Charleston — The South Carolina General Assembly has voted to fund the entire estimated construction cost of $300 million for Charleston’s harbor deepening project, Charleston Harbor Post 45, if federal funds aren’t available.

As part of its “We Can’t Wait” initiative, the Obama administration has set a target date of September 2015 for completing all federal permit and review decisions for the project to deepen the Charleston Harbor from its current 45 feet to approximately 50 feet. Generally, such an Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study averages around 10 years.

Port officials say the expedited schedule means their project could be completed by 2019 — five years earlier than originally announced.

Charleston wants to become the premier deep-water port in the South Atlantic, said Allison Skipper, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Ports Authority.

And she points out that with Savannah planning to dredge to 47 feet, the rival port “will have less capacity than we’re considering here.’’

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