With Miami port tunnel plan advancing, barge traffic may too
By Risa Polansky
Although plans for twin tunnels to the Port of Miami are back on solid ground for now, plans to transport port cargo via short-sea shipping along the Miami River may still resurface.
The idea: loading seaport freight onto a barge to be shipped up the river and off-loaded in the industrial district, removing cargo truck traffic from downtown streets.
The planned $1 billion-plus tunnels are meant also to thin downtown port traffic by diverting trucks via underwater tubes connecting the port to Watson Island.
Short-sea shipping is seen as a quick-to-implement, less-costly method that proponents say could be a stopgap until the tunnels are dug and even complement them once they're open.
But while local officials worked to keep the on-again, off-again tunnel project on again, they seemed hesitant to also press the short-sea shipping idea, said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group.
No one specifically articulated it, but it appeared "if we demonstrated short-sea shipping would work, that might somehow hurt their chances for funding" for the tunnel, she said.
The Florida Department of Transportation tried in December to shelve the long-planned tunnel project.
Local leaders immediately balked, coming out in full force to keep the project on track.
After months of back and forth, the state agreed in April to keep the tunnel alive, setting strict deadlines: business terms had to be set by June 1 — done — and the contractor team must secure financing by Oct. 1.
Officials are optimistic and anticipate a 2014 completion.
In the meantime, Miami-Dade had a chance to apply for funding for short-sea shipping through Congress as part of its Energy and Water Bill.
The county didn't go after a grant, missing the boat for fiscal 2010 funding.
But there's always next year.
Port Director Bill Johnson in an interview this month said "we are supportive of" short-sea shipping — something he says he's made clear throughout his tenure as port director — but noted that proponents have yet to present a formal proposal or business plan.
Mr. Johnson has also often said he'd support using rail to move cargo onto and off of the port to improve efficiency and ease truck traffic, though solid plans didn't emerge until after the tunnel smoke cleared.
He and Florida East Coast Railway President David Rohal last week outlined a plan to seek federal stimulus money to restore and upgrade on-port rail infrastructure and a Florida East Coast Railway branch to allow trains to transport cargo from the port to the railway's Hialeah intermodal yard, which would serve as an inland port.
Now that the tunnel project is apparently a go, Ms. Bohnsack said river players intend to develop a full business plan for short-sea shipping, though there's no timeline to draft one.
The Miami River Commission, the clearinghouse for river-related public policy and projects, also continues to support short-sea shipping, recommended in a 2007 Miami River Corridor Multi-Modal Transportation Plan.
"The Miami River Commission continues to advocate for implementation of the award winning Miami River Corridor Multi-Modal Transportation Plan, which in part recommends short-sea shipping," Chair Eric Buermann said via e-mail. "Miami-Dade County's next opportunity for a federal cost share is in the FY '11 Energy and Water Bill."
Short-sea shipping could move 1,200 containers daily, taking 1,200 trucks off downtown streets, projections show. The system could be up and running in 60 to 90 days.
But the concept has not met with universal support. Cargo players fear added costs.
Loading cargo on and off a barge means extra handling, said Jorge Rovirosa, executive vice president of Florida Stevedoring and director of the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co.
"That would add additional costs to the total transport of cargo over and above what it would cost today to move a container from the port to a receiver in the local area," he said.
Paying extra could pay off when it comes to a long-distance trip, he said, but "when you do a short-distance haul, it just adds additional costs and would make the Port of Miami uncompetitive."
There's a chance, however, that federal funding could cover added costs.
"If somebody is going to subsidize the complete cost, then it would be a good idea," Mr. Rovirosa said.
Cargo players aired the same fears in reacting to the newly unveiled, in-the-works plan to restore direct rail to the seaport.
In hearing the plan for the first time last week, Barbara Pimentel, executive vice president of the Florida Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association, questioned "Will there be additional costs? What's the cost to the end user?"
In response to those concerns, Florida East Coast Railway President David Rohal said via e-mail that "there will be only one additional container handling involved, the lift at the FECintermodal yard (or inland port). Handling from the port to the train should be no more expensive than handlingto a truck, and the final delivery to a warehouse by truck will be exactly the same."
He estimated that "most of the local deliveries off the port using the rail shuttle will cost the same orbe less expensive than using trucks directly off the port because most of the warehouses and other freight destinations are much closer to the FEC intermodal yard. Trucks will avoid the traffic congestion of downtown Miami, andeach truck and each driverwill be able to make more runs from the FEC intermodal yard than the port."