Authorities including Port of Miami director Bill Johnson are betting a three-part, $1.5 billion program to open the Port of Miami to super-freighters that pass through the revamped Panama Canal will mean a boom. But you'd be safer putting your money on the Marlins to make the World Series.
A $50 million project to connect the Port of Miami to Florida East Coast Railway lines comes on top of two massive projects already underway at the port. In March, Gov. Rick Scott pledged $77 million in state funds -- on top of $120 million of Miami-Dade funds -- 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.
Problem is, scores of ports around the country -- including a handful in South Florida -- are competing for the super-freighters. 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.
Port of Miami officials could not be reached for comment.
"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 to accommodate these Panamax ships."
Yet, 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 opposes deep dredging and thinks the public has been misled about the project. "I'm not against commerce, but when you balance it out you see we're trashing the bay out forever."
Like Rodrigue, Kipnis suspects most of the Panamax ships will skip both Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
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"Look at a map. We're at the tip of the penis," he says, whereas New York -- the head of the country infrastructure-- and Norfolk -- the heart -- make infinitely more sense for shipping companies.
Dredging will just leave both South Florida cities with deeply scarred bays and crippled environmental tourism industries, he says.
"Do you really need two warts at the tip of the penis?" Kipnis says.