Congressional OK of channel dredging positions port for boom
By Lou Ortiz
The Port of Miami has won congressional approval to dredge a 50-foot channel that — along with the construction of the port tunnel — would help the facility double the yearly 8.6 million tons of cargo it now handles, officials say.
If the 5.5-mile channel is dredged, the port would also be poised to draw more business from shipping firms that use the Panama Canal, and become only the third port on the East Coast to accommodate 1,000-foot Super-Panamax-class vessels, officials said.
Containerships can carry 4,000 to 15,000 TEU's — 20-foot equivalent containers — which is a term used by ports to describe the 20-foot containers a vessel carries.
The Super Panamax ships carry upwards of 9,000 TEU's and need deeper channels to load and unload their cargoes.
The Port of Baltimore has a 50-foot channel and the Port of New York and New Jersey embarked on lowering at least six of its channels to the same depth in 2004, according to Web site data from both facilities.
"The 50-foot depth would accommodate the world's largest cargo vessels," Port Director Bill Johnson said earlier this month in an interview.
He added that the lower depth would help double the amount of cargo volume at the port.
Congressional approval for the 50-foot channel came last month when lawmakers included the port in the Water Resources Development Act, said Luis Perez, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Perez said the proposed project would lower the port's current 42-foot South Channel, and the dredging could be done while ships go in and out of the port on the same channel.
He said the dredging could take years to complete and "we may do it in segments or all at once, depending on funding."
The county is asking for $2 million in its 2008 federal legislative agenda to come up with plans to dredge Miami harbor.
Mr. Perez said the federal government would pay 40.5% of the cost and the port would have to come up with the remainder.
Cost estimates done for the project last year totaled $157 million, with $63 million in federal funds and $93 million in state and local contributions.
No timetable has yet been set on the project.
Mr. Johnson said he has visited Washington, DC, and Tallahassee lobbying for money for the project.
The port's cargo operations had topped 9 million tons over three years, from 2003 to 2005, with revenues averaging about $83 million annually during the period.
But tonnage dipped to 8.6 million in 2006 even though revenue increased to $88 million.
Mr. Johnson and others say construction of the $1 billion port tunnel is also important.
Harbor pilot John Jacobsen said the tunnel is necessary "to get these containers through the port. Access to I-95 is the biggest problem."
Mr. Jacobsen, a member and former secretary/treasurer of the Biscayne Bay Pilot Association, said the port already has the giant cranes to service the Super Panamax ships.
A harbor pilot for 14 years, Mr. Jacobsen takes navigational control of ships coming in and out of the area and drives them safely to the county's port.
With the 50-foot channel and the tunnel "we'll be a relevant seaport for the next generation," he said. "Other seaports are doing the same because we're all chasing the same thing."
Increasing cargo, revenues, jobs and local government coffers are reasons a few ports in the US are investing huge sums of money in port expansions, including dredging 50-foot channels.
For example, the Port of Oakland has embarked on a $42 million 50-foot dredging project that officials there say will add 8,800 new jobs to the current 44,000 the facility supports once the work is completed.
In addition, the lower depth is expected to increase annual business by $1.9 billion and yearly local tax revenues by $62 million, according to the port's website.
But the port, one of the biggest in the country, already has "a network of local roads and interstate freeways" that contributes to the facility's efficiency, the Web site says.
The $5.3 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, with a projected completion in 2014, is another possible source of increased business for Miami's port. The canal project will allow the facility to handle ships that carry up to 12,000 TEU's.
"Once it [the ship] comes out of the Panama Canal, where will that ship go?" asked Mr. Jacobsen. "Miami is so strategically located."