Chanting a mantra

Baltimore's growth has the backing of the US Administration. Credit : Maryland Government
Baltimore's growth has the backing of the US Administration. Credit : Maryland Government
Miami plumped for the build it and they will come approach
Miami plumped for the build it and they will come approach
Industry Database

East Coast ports believe that deeper water is the answer to many of their problems, finds Martin Rushmere

Three factors are converging and making a play on the East Coast ports: deep water, the P3 alliance and public private partnerships.

They are chanting a mantra of “deep water, deep water” and fingering their worry beads as they react to and plan for rapidly changing technical and economic developments. From raising the height of the Bayonne Bridge at New York/New Jersey to aiming for a 55 foot draft at Port Canaveral, they see much of their growth as being dependent on deeper channels for bigger vessels.

Whether the ports are relying more on hope than substance is a moot point. Often, executives link the mantra to the Panama Canal as automatic cause and effect, even though newbuildings are bypassing the canal. So much so that one logistics analyst warns that the wider canal will bring few further blessings.

And at least one port is a disciple of the principle of “Build it and they will come.”

Miami will have borrowed $1.6bn by the end of 2014, mostly in bonds, for building a new bulkhead in the harbour ($250m) and a new cruise terminal ($350m), set to open in 2017/18. Added to this is a public private partnership to establish a World Trade Centre, costing about $1bn, that will include hotels, and 6,000 square meters of exhibition halls.

“We can knock the socks off any other port for reaching places like Cleveland and Chicago,” says chief executive Bill Johnson. “We are the closest port to the Panama Canal.”

“We are just under 1m teu and our objective is the 2m teu mark by 2020. We are getting ready to introduce RTGs and with the infrastructure for those we can reach 3.5m teu. Another four super post-panamax cranes are being bought for $40m, bringing the total to 10. A solid 55% of its trade is with the Caribbean and Latin America while Japan accounts for 20%.


Transhipment track

Central to Miami’s planning is recovering its international transhipment business, which Bill Johnson terms “low-hanging fruit. Before the September 11 attacks it was at 22% of our business but today it’s only 1%.” Most recently, fruit from Guatemala and Peru has been transhipped from 4,500 teu vessels on to Europe-bound strings.

“We are sending a message to places like Freeport that we are in business. We are one of the few ports that exports more than it imports.”

Cruise passenger numbers are expected to top 5m this year and rise to 6m by 2020.

Baltimore is also bullish on the back of the canal and deeper draught. A spokesman says the port “is in an excellent position as we await the expanded Panama Canal. Earlier this year, our new 50-foot deep container berth and four super post panamax cranes became operational. Baltimore is now one of only two East Coast ports able to accommodate some of the largest ships in the world. Baltimore is situated within the third largest US consumer market and two-thirds of the US population can be reached overnight from the Port of Baltimore. We believe we will see a marked increase in our container business over the next several years."

Says Charleston: "As the expansion of the Panama Canal directs deeper, wider ships to the US East Coast, the port is in a unique position to benefit. Charleston currently has the deepest harbour along the US Southeast coast, and the port already averages seven post-panamax ship calls per week.”

But the port is balancing the reliance on Panama and taking a tack that is unusual in the US in the form of the development of an inland port. Greer, 320 km from Charleston, was opened three months ago and the 40 acres developed so far can handle 40,000 teu a year. At eventual maximum size of 100 acres the terminal density will be the same, with a capacity of 100,000 teu a year.


PPP attractions

All ports are embracing private public partnerships. South Carolina Ports Authority says it “works with the private sector on a daily basis to grow volume, seeking both public and private partnerships that prove to be good investments for Charleston and for South Carolina. “

Maryland has formed a PPP with Ports America Chesapeake to build 50-foot container berths and pay for new super post-panamax cranes. “Without that investment, Maryland did not have the financial wherewithal to move forward with that project. The Port of Baltimore would not be in the competitive position it is today without private investment,” says a port spokesman.

Comments Paul Bingham, economics practice leader at CDM Smith: "The role of PPPs will continue to be important for port investment where the long-term revenue streams can be estimated and included in contracts explicitly enough. Port investment planning needs to leverage those opportunities that exist but not rely exclusively on PPPs for investment capital. Some port investments will continue to be better made with some public financial participation, especially where demands on the ports from the public include expectations that they serve as economic development generators.


West coast potential

A long-term question mark that continues to hang over the East Coast is whether a sizeable proportion of traffic will be drawn away from California and the West Coast. For Edward Sands, logistics practice leader at Procurian, there has already been an answer.

“Definitely not. It’s already happened, 10 or 15 years ago. The main importers have already built their big distribution centres. What’s more, technological change has meant the Panama Canal is not the game changer many port authorities see it as. The ships are so much bigger than when planning first started and though the new canal will obviously make some difference, some of the impact has passed by. Today customers on the East Coast are looking at reliable service and cost. The fact that a shipment might take two or three days longer is not a big deal – which means the economics of Suez instead are locked and loaded."

Adds Mr Bingham: “The expansion (not just widening) of the Panama Canal will have less of an additional impact beyond the influence it has already had on shipping, trade and ports compared to what some analysts have claimed. The historic impact will eventually be shown to be substantial but many don’t realise how much of an impact the expansion has already had before the expansion itself is complete. Vessel fleet characteristics, port capacity and supply chain distribution have already been affected by the expansion. For container ships and competing vessel service types like dedicated reefer ships, the growth in average container vessel size has already affected shipping rates and services deployed, even if all water services are today reaching the US East Coast through the Suez Canal route.”

Florida is pushing to become the most important state in the country for maritime business, with its governor as one of the main proponents. Miami's Mr Johnson is a strong believer in this, partly because the population will surpass that of New York within the next 10 years.

Such a notion is derided as “fanciful” by an industry executive. “All the shippers I have spoken to say there is no way they are going to put their distribution facilities down there. And they are building these huge facilities for the really big vessels that are not going to call there. They boast of their trade with South America, but the vessels on that route will stay at 6,000 teu-8,000 teu maximum for the next 20 years.”


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