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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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