Miami symposium looks at local impact of the arrival of big ships



PortMiami unveiled a clock Monday during a congressional symposium that counts down the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds before the expanded Panama Canal is completed in 2015.

Speakers said the reason Miami is following the $5.25 billion project nearly 1,200 miles away so closely is because it represents Florida jobs.

Deepening and widening portions of the canal and building a new set of locks on the Atlantic and Pacific sides will allow a new generation of longer, wider and heavier ships that can carry three times as much cargo to fit through the waterway.

The project goes hand-in-hand with more than $2 billion in improvements at PortMiami, including a tunnel that will speed truck traffic to the port, an on-port rail link, and dredging Miami’s shipping channels from 44 feet to a depth of 50 to 52 feet — deep enough for the big ships.

Those projects “translate into more containers, more trade and, most importantly, more work,’’ said PortMiami Director Bill Johnson during the meeting held at the port.

“For me, this port is a passion. The reason — jobs, jobs, jobs,’’ said Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Miami Democrat who convened the symposium. Wilson is founder and chairwoman of the bipartisan Florida Ports Caucus in Congress. She said the PortMiami improvements combined with the expanded canal will bring up to 33,000 new jobs to the region.

On Monday, the countdown clock stood at 1 year and 350 days, meaning the expansion is expected to be completed by June 30, 2015. That’s about eight months behind the original target.

Rodolfo Sabonge, executive vice president for planning and business development at the Panama Canal Authority, said the project is now about 60 percent complete. The international consortium working on the expansion “said last week that they expect to be done by April 2015,’’ he said. But for the time being, Sabonge said, the canal authority is sticking with the June 2015 date.

All the Miami improvements are timed to be completed by the summer of 2015. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corp., an Illinois firm that won the $205 million dredging contract, is scheduled to begin work next month and the tunnel is expected to be finished next year.

The first phase of the rail link is expected to be delivered in October. With the new, more efficient Florida East Coast Railway link, cargo arriving at the port of Miami will be in striking distance of 70 percent of the nation’s population within four days, said Johnson.

Although other ports in the Southeast hope to dredge their channels, Miami will be the only port south of Norfolk, Va. able to accommodate the big ships when the canal expansion is completed.

“June 30, 2015, is closer than we think,” said Eric Olafson, head of intergovernmental affairs for PortMiami. Introducing the clock “is like a call to action to the community,’’ he said.

“The 33,000 jobs expected to be created won’t only be at the port; they’ll be spread throughout the community,’’ said Olafson, and in the intervening time people need to be trained, warehouses built and technology put in place to handle the expected uptick in cargo.

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