U.S. East, South race to build ports that accommodate superships
East Coast ports from New York to Miami are scrambling to become the go-to port once the Panama Canal is widened and can handle import-laden superships and the revenue they'll bring.
The New York Times
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Port officials here are racing to dig 6 feet of mud from the bottom of the Savannah River by 2014. In the world of major waterway expansions, that is an impossibly tight timeline.
Few can recall a civic project in Georgia that has had more unified support.
Without the $625 million deepening project, a breed of huge ships loaded with foreign-made iPods, furniture and other goods that soon will be able to traverse a newly widened Panama Canal will head elsewhere. And with them would go potentially billions of dollars in business.
As with Savannah, other East Coast ports from New York to Miami are scrambling like shoppers at a post-Thanksgiving door-buster sale, trying to become the go-to port once the canal is widened.
But the battle is especially fierce in the South, where several ports are competing to become the region's top destination for the superships. They hope to cash in on the biggest shift in the freight business since the 1950s, when oceangoing ships began carrying goods in uniform metal containers.
The Panama Canal, 48 miles of water that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion that is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 15, 2014, 100 years to the day after it opened.
In what long has been considered a speed bump for major shipping companies, the canal is too small to accommodate a class of superships that came on the scene in the 1980s and went into heavy use a decade later, when China became a powerful exporter.
Some of the big ships can carry three times as many containers as the industry average. The expansion, though it still will not allow the canal to accommodate the largest of the ships, will enable products made in Asia to be sent directly to the East Coast instead of being unloaded on the West Coast and sent east by train or truck.
A result could be a shift in business worth billions of dollars to ports and big savings for companies like Ikea and Home Depot, which always are on the hunt for more-efficient ways to serve shoppers in the Eastern third of the United States, where a majority of the population lives.
To capture some of the new traffic, almost every large East Coast port and those along the Gulf of Mexico have projects under way. Some ports that are too small to handle the giant ships are improving railroads and truck routes, making them more efficient in anticipation of an overall increase in the number of containers coming to the East.
Others want to dig deeper channels and become the leading port in their region for companies operating the big vessels, including Savannah; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Miami.
Those projects, however, rely on a long process that requires congressional approval, studies by the Army Corps of Engineers and, finally, a lot of federal money that usually comes as budget add-ons, or earmarks.
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