By William E. Gibson and Doreen Hemlock
With varying success, South Florida's seaports are striving to grow wider and deeper to lure a bigger share of the increased trade expected to flow from Asia and Latin America.
Port Everglades just got approval — 18 years in the making — for a federally funded dredging project. PortMiami already has dug its harbor down to 50 feet to attract a new generation of super-sized ships.
The Port Of Palm Beach also plans to expand. But the port has run into fierce opposition from nearby residents and environmentalists who fear the impact of a dredging project that would bring more and bigger ships through the Lake Worth Inlet.
All of Florida's ports hope to benefit from increased trade, as a growing middle class in emerging nations demands more American goods.
"The increase in freight is such that there's plenty of growth for everyone," predicted Jim Walker, director of navigation policy for the American Association of Port Authorities. "The Florida ports are in a good location. Certainly with the Panama Canal widening, they are well-positioned for growth."
Labor strikes at ports along the West Coast this year already have prompted some shippers to shift routes to the East Coast through the Panama Canal.
"At any given time, 30 vessels anchored offshore were waiting to be offloaded. People lost cargo — perishables just rotted on the docks," said Doug Wheeler, president of the Florida Ports Council, which promotes the state's 15 seaports. "A lot of shippers decided that diversification would be a good safeguard against this kind of thing in the future."
Port leaders, who accompanied Gov. Rick Scott on a promotional trip to California in April, are trying to bring some of that business to Florida. And the ports are expanding to handle it.
Port Everglades expects to double its cargo by 2020, mostly from north-south routes to Latin America. More trade from the Pacific through the Panama Canal would be a bonus, Cernak said.
Using rail links established at the port last year, these goods can be distributed by freight train to markets serving 60 percent of the U.S. population within three days.
More efficient trade — more boxes on bigger vessels — saves shipping costs and may bring a wider variety of goods to Florida and the hinterland at lower prices.
"At the end of the day, it's the consumer who benefits," said Steve Cernak, director of Port Everglades.
The port's long-awaited expansion plans got a boost in June when the Army Corps of Engineers approved a project to dredge its harbor down to 48 feet. The project is expected to generate 4,700 construction jobs and nearly 1,500 permanent jobs.
"Reaching this day is one of the most exciting things to happen in Broward County," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
Congress still must authorize the project, a likely prospect next year, and South Florida members of Congress still must fight for annual appropriations to deliver the federal share: roughly $190 million for the $374 million project.
"It's very difficult, but in Congress, everything is difficult," said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.
The remaining cost will be paid from port revenue or bonds, and maybe some state money.
Congress already has approved a provision that will allow Port Everglades to begin the design phase and eventually get reimbursed for the federal share.
PortMiami and Port Everglades are among several East Coast ports racing to dredge deep enough to handle the massive new class of ships that will pass through a widened Panama Canal next year.
But Cernak said Port Everglades needed to deepen its channels to accommodate ships already coming in lightly loaded to avoid scraping bottom.
While Port Everglades is moving ahead, the much smaller Port of Palm Beach remains snarled in disputes with its neighbors.
"We've been attacked," lamented Manuel Almira, director of the Port Of Palm Beach, who envies the kind of support that Broward County's political and business establishment has bestowed on Port Everglades.
He said his port never will be deep enough to accommodate the most massive cargo and cruise ships to pass through the widened Panama Canal. But he had hoped to dredge down to 38 or 39 feet to improve navigational safety and help deep-draft vessels pass through the tricky Lake Worth Inlet.
The Army Corps of Engineers approved the Port of Palm Beach project. But neighboring communities, including the influential town of Palm Beach, balked at the prospect of deep dredging, which they fear will muddy the waters, destroy coral beds, disrupt recreation and threaten a delicate ecology.
As a result, Frankel opposes federal funding for the project, bringing it to a halt.
"I think the Port of Palm Beach has an opportunity to thrive, if they can figure out how to do it with community support," Frankel said.
In response, the port is scaling back its dredging plans while meeting regularly with the Army Corps and community objectors.
"We have always wanted to work with our neighbors," Almira said. "At least we're talking to each other, and fully. Nobody at the Port of Palm Beach is out to destroy any environment. We are just as environmentally conscious as they are."