Port of Miami expansion won't save the city's economy, experts say

With rust-colored railroad cars framing a scorching, azure sky downtown, city and federal officials last month lauded a $50 million project to reconnect the Port of Miami to Florida East Coast Railway lines damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The project is part of a three-prong strategy to prepare Miami's port for the massive superfreighters that supposedly will soon stream through the Panama Canal. In March, Gov. Rick Scott pledged $77 million in state funds — on top of $120 million of Miami-Dade dough — to deep-dredge the waterway. And construction of the $1 billion Port of Miami Tunnel has clogged the MacArthur Causeway for more than a year.

The three projects amount to a nearly $1.5 billion bet that the Panama Canal expansion will mean a boom for the Port of Miami. But critics say that isn't the case. Scores of ports around the country — including a handful in South Florida — are competing for the same ships. Only a couple will benefit, and Miami probably won't be among them.

"All East Coast ports had the same idea at the same time," says Jean-Paul Rodrigue, an expert on the Panama Canal expansion. "They all think that these ships are coming to them, so now they're salivating at the mouth."

In effect, Miami is spending itself into a hole to compete for table scraps. New York City, the nation's largest port, is the clear frontrunner for these large "Panamax" freighters, Rodrigue says. Norfolk, Virginia, already has a Panamax-ready port, and Savannah, Georgia, has better infrastructure than South Florida. Even Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades is deep-dredging and has signed an agreement with Florida East Coast for its own 48-acre rail yard.

"Miami is surprisingly not big enough in volume to justify a frequent service by these ships," Rodrigue cautions.

"The Port of Miami is very competitive," says port spokeswoman Paula Musto. "The economy of South Florida is in serious trouble. The only thing that can get us out of this... is international trade and commerce. So it's important that we're ready."

While the benefits are dubious, the costs are definite. "What a stupid fucking thing," says Dan Kipnis, a Biscayne Bay boat captain and environmentalist who warns that "we're trashing the bay forever." Like Rodrigue, he suspects most of the Panamax ships will skip both Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

"Look at a map," Kipnis says. "We're at the tip of the penis... Do you really need two warts at the tip of the penis?"

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There is an item before the County Commission, tomorrow, September 1, 2011 to award a contract for $56 million to prepare more than a mile of bulkhead at the Port of Miami for the 50 foot deep harbor dredging. This is just the first stage of approximately $300 million in construction for the dredging project (with associated bulkhead adjustments). We have heard bits and pieces here and there how this is necessary to accommodate the larger cargo ships that will travel through a widened Panama Canal, when that is completed in 2014.

Our concern is that the broader question of real demand for a larger cargo handling capacity at the Port of Miami justifies what will be a terrible impact for the adjacent Federally designated marine sanctuary where this will take place. Recent doubts about demand for more cargo traffic at the Port of Miami have been expressed in the local press, (Miami New Times this week) citing industry experts.

Furthermore, it is uncertain that all elements will be in place for more cargo capability at the Port, which has only limited acreage for cargo functions, in spite of over $1.5 BILLION being spent. We have been unable to find a comprehensive plan for how the dredging, tunnel, FEC rail improvements with limited cargo acreage at the port meets future shipping demand and fits with tenant port terminal operator plans. In fact we have found there to be certain troubling conflicts.

It is understood that the Port is a great economic generator for the County, but one must not lose sight that the greatest resource of the County is the environment which attracts people and tourists to the region in the first place.

Show up at the public hearing tomorrow Sept 1 in the commission chambers to voice your concerns.

Sincerely,Citizens for Responsible Development


There's lots more to be critical of. One super post panamax ship, if it comes would require 100 acres of backland to accommodate all the containers, unless there is advanced containeryard technology in place like Hong Kong. No such technology is being put in place. The entire port is little more than 300 acres, and half of that is not even for cargo. The rail improvements underway will require trains to traverse downtown across Biscayne Blvd. by the AA arena, then through the city. The shipping companies criticize this mode because it is more costly and will require another unloading at the rail yard onto trucks. Limiting trains to overnight hours willl be noisy for nearby condo dwellers and only eliminate a small percentage of required trucking to move containers. This whole thing has not been thought through. Politicians just want to rush ahead with construction for the questionable benefit of politically connected contractors and lobbiests

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