The South Florida port and the Florida East Coast Railway educated business groups in Washington, D.C. Wednesday about South Florida’s potential as an export gateway.
A team of officials from PortMiami and the Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) made rounds in Washington, D.C. Wednesday to educate business groups about South Florida’s potential as an export gateway and learn about commodities produced in the Midwest that could be good candidates for moving through an alternative port.
The port and rail executives met with staff at the North American Meat Institute, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, the U.S. Grains Council, the National Chicken Council and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as with officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Eric Olafson, PortMiami’s trade development manager, said.
The push for new business opportunities is a byproduct of the recent widening of the Panama Canal to accommodate ships triple in size and infrastructure investments that enable PortMiami to receive those ships and better relay the containerized cargo to its destination.
“As PortMiami is able to receive neo-Panamax vessels, they will act like magnets for agriculture and manufacturing products,” Olafson said, adding that Miami has plenty of capacity on ocean services to Asia and Latin America to meet demand.
PortMiami has to overcome the perception that it is a regional port and too far for shippers in the heartland to rely on for imports and exports when there are closer options. But port officials say that times have changed and Miami deserves a second look.
Last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed dredging of Miami’s main channel to 50 feet, making it one of only two ports on the East Coast at the moment with unrestricted access to multiple berths for super post-Panamax vessels in the 14,000-TEU range. PortMiami also invested in cranes to reach across the mega-vessels to load and unload containers. A nearly $1 billion tunnel paid for by the state of Florida and local governments now offers direct connections to the interstate for trucks that previously had to wind through downtown streets to deliver ocean containers. Finally, the FECR worked with the port to build an intermodal terminal on the docks and restore a neglected main to the rail bridge that connects the mainland with the manmade island that is home to the port.
Previously, using the rail out of Miami required a truck move to the FECR’s Hialeah yard, adding cost and time that shippers were unwilling to endure when their goods to move via ports further up the coast. More than 10 percent of the 1 million TEUs handled at PortMiami now leave or arrive at the docks by train.
The FECR is moving more than 45,000 containers a year now at the port and has capacity to handle up to 225,000 boxes annually with 9,000 linear feet of rail on three tracks. The FECR, a short-line that runs along the Florida coast, interchanges with the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads in Jacksonville. Officials say cargo offloaded in Miami can be in Atlanta in two days, Memphis in three days and in Chicago in four days. As the first deep water port for vessels coming through the Panama Canal, officials say cargo can be on its way to an inland destination before the vessel reaches ports of call like Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, Baltimore, or New York/New Jersey.
On-dock rail has opened new business for PortMiami and the FECR, including Rooms-to-Go furniture imports from Asia that are hauled to Cocoa Beach and then trucked a short distance to a distribution center in the Orlando area. Nissan is also shipping auto parts from its plant in Tennessee to St. Petersburg, Russia, via rail and the port. The partners also have attracted some shipments of seed corn from Chile destined for Chicago, saving five days and 25 percent in cost over the previous routing through Freeport, Bahamas, and Philadelphia.
And exporters can take advantage of Miami also being a last port of call, which allows them more time to produce goods and get them on a vessel rather than getting loaded at another port and having inventory sit while the vessel makes other stops on its route, Olafson stressed.
Olafson said PortMiami is trying to develop a transload market so that grains and other bulk commodities can be moved by rail car to the area and then loaded into empty containers, of which there are plenty in the Miami area. Some local logistics providers as well as national companies involved in stuffing ocean containers with agricultural commodities have expressed interest in investing in rail-served warehouses that can provide that type of transfer service, he added, without providing any details. Grains could also be transloaded closer to origin and then moved by intermodal rail to the port, he suggested.