A vessel displaying a Marshall Islands flag — loaded with electronics, clothes, recyclables, and other consumer items from Shanghai, Tokyo and Busan — will make its way through the new locks of the Panama Canal over the Independence Day holiday.
By the end of next week, the MOL Majesty will arrive at PortMiami, setting off a waterside celebration and marking what local port officials are proclaiming the start of the “new big ship era.”
MOL Majesty will be the first neo-Panamax vessel — a new line of large cargo ships that require deep channels and the new canal locks — to reach Florida after navigating an expanded Panama Canal, a $5.25 billion project recently completed, nearly two years behind schedule.
While the MOL Majesty's anticipated July 9 arrival will draw attention to PortMiami, it will also give the state a chance to highlight Florida's efforts to bulk up the majority of its 14-port system.
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Since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2010, Florida has invested more than $1 billion in ports, and some of the largest checks have floated into PortMiami. The Miami projects include deepening the channel to accommodate larger vessels and completion of a fast-access tunnel connecting the port directly to nearby highways and the Florida East Coast Railway on-dock service.
Other significant investments include the I-4/Selmon Expressway Connector, which links the Port of Tampa with Interstate 75; development of a container yard at Port Canaveral; lengthening the deepwater turn-around for cargo ships at Port Everglades; and container-yard improvements at the Port of Tampa.
Florida Ports Council President and CEO Doug Wheeler said the work was necessary to meet the demands of an evolving global market.
“One of the opportunities that we have is that there is currently a lot of cargo coming into Florida, not via Florida ports," Wheeler told The News Service of Florida on Thursday. "We want to change that. We also have an issue where we send a lot of railcars and containers back to where they came from empty. Hopefully, with some of this new cargo, we can address some of (those) empty haul issues as well.”
The fiscal gamble on the Panama Canal, whose handlers are hoping to lure business away from the Suez Canal in Egypt, comes as China's economy has grown sluggish and the net cargo volume of shipments from U.S. East Coast ports to Asia fell 10.2 percent in 2015.
Wheeler said there is more risk to Florida by doing nothing.
“I don't think there has even been a guarantee that we are going to capture all this cargo," Wheeler said. "But I think (we are) doing what we can to make sure we are in the best position possible to make sure we can capture that … and not just at one port, but at multiple ports around the state. … That's really what we have been about in investing more than $1 billion dollars on some of these projects."
In May, the council released a report indicating that nearly $3.7 billion more — in state, local and private funds — will be needed over the next five years to handle growing international trade at the majority of Florida seaports.
The state's $82 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning Friday includes $153 million for port projects administered by the Department of Transportation.
Lawmakers this year also approved a wide-ranging transportation bill that boosts the minimum annual funding for the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development program —administered by the Florida Ports Council — from $15 million to $25 million.