Port of Miami renews Panama Canal Authority pact
By Scott Blake
Miami Seaport Director Bill Johnson is heatedly defending the Port of Miami's "Deep Dredge" against critics who he says question the environmental safety and financial wisdom of the $150 million project.
"They're saying we don't need the dredge," Mr. Johnson said. "It aggravated me because of all the hard work we've put into this."
He added: "A small group is misrepresenting the facts. First, they said it isn't environmentally sound. Now they want to attack the project on economics. I'm flabbergasted."
Mr. Johnson made his comments Thursday following an event at the port to celebrate its longstanding partnership with the Panama Canal Authority, highlighted by the renewal of an agreement signed by Mr. Johnson and Panama Canal Administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta.
The memorandum of understanding — calling for the Port of Miami and Panama Canal Authority to share marketing activities, information, data, training and technology — is expected to have increased meaning as both the port and the canal undergo major improvements.
The dredging to deepen the port's cargo shipping channel is supposed to be a key to raising sea cargo shipments through Miami to unprecedented levels after the Panama Canal is widened and deepened in 2014.
After Thursday's signing, Mr. Johnson expressed frustration with critics of the dredging, whom he refused to name.
Noting the dredging is just one of several large projects underway at the port, including construction of twin tunnels under the port's cruise ship channel, Mr. Johnson said: "We're not investing $2 billion just on a guess."
He said claims that cargo shipments through the port have fallen are not true.
He said the port handled roughly $16 billion worth of the cargo in the past year. He said that number is projected to as much as triple by 2030 as larger cargo ships are able to travel through the enlarged Panama Canal, and Miami stands to gain thousands of jobs as a result.
With the dredging, the tunnels, and pier and rail improvements, the plan is to create a seamless transportation system through the port so it will be positioned to capture much of the increased cargo expected to come through the canal.
Mr. Johnson said numerous large shipping companies have weighed in to support the projects.
During Thursday's ceremony, Mr. Zubieta, who is overseeing about $5.2 billion in improvements to the Panama Canal, commended port officials for their vision.
"If you don't do [the improvements] on time, then someone else will do it and the cargo will go somewhere else," Mr. Zubieta said. "And then you'll be playing catch up."
Mr. Johnson said deepening the cargo channel to 50 feet will allow the port to accommodate the larger ships coming through the canal.
"We're the only port south of Virginia that has congressional approval to go to 50 feet," he said, saying the plan is to position the Port of Miami as one of three major cargo points on the eastern seaboard, alongside the Port of New York and New Jersey and the Port of Virginia.
The Port of Miami dredging is scheduled for completion in August 2014. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has agreed to pay what would have been the $75 million federal share of the project's cost with state funds. The remaining $75 million is to be split by the state and the port.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has given a notice of intent to issue a permit for the dredging to the US Army Corps of Engineers.
At the ceremony, Simon Ferro, former US ambassador to Panama, noted that Mr. Zubieta was named the canal's administrator when it was still under joint US-Panama control until 1999, and he has remained in that post since the US pulled out.
Mr. Ferro said that at the time, the US had doubts about how well Panama could manage the canal by itself, and he commended Mr. Zubieta for being part of Panama's leadership in making it a "progressive, professional nation."
Miami-Dade county commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Bruno Barreiro also commended Mr. Zubieta.
"I have been able to follow your strength and vision for Panama," said Ms. Sosa, who presented Mr. Zubieta with a ceremonial key to Miami-Dade County.
Referring to cooperative efforts between the port and the canal, Mr. Barreiro said: "You are giving us opportunity to work toward" a global economy.
To read the entire issue of Miami Today online, subscribe to e -Miami Today, an exact digital replica of the printed edition.