The Panama Canal's cost efficiency will ensure that the canal can survive possible competition from proposed rail landbridges across Mexico and Costa Rica, a Panama Canal Commission official said.
Richard Wainio, the commission's director of administration and planning, said the canal's toll amounts to only $25 to $30 a container."What intermodal system can compete with that cost?" Mr. Wainio asked rhetorically last week in Miami at a Caribbean trade and transportation conference, co-sponsored by the Containerization and Intermodal Institute and the Port of Miami.
Also, he said, "if you're going to move a container from the Far East to the East Coast of the United States, surely you're not going to move it (by rail) through Mexico."
Mr. Wainio also dismissed as too expensive the possibility of building a sea-level canal that wouldn't require locks.
"I don't even know why the World Bank is giving money for a study" of sea-level canals, he said.
Still, he said, "there's no reason to wax euphoric" over the Panama Canal.
Left unchecked, such festering troubles as widespread poverty, strong protectionist sentiments by both industrialists and labor and political uncertainty could present formidable problems, he said.
After Panama takes control on Dec. 31, 1999, the canal will remain an important shipping link if the government can avoid treating the canal as a cash cow, manages to keep politics out of the operation and maintains the existing organizational structure, Mr. Wainio said.
* * * *
UNREST AMONG independent truck drivers who object to having to absorb increased gasoline taxes worries officials at the Port of Miami.
When fuel prices jumped following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the port was shut down for nearly a week when local draymen, affiliated with the International Longshoremen's Association, blocked the port entrance to protest their employers' refusal to grant the drivers an equitable share of a fuel surcharge.
Recognizing that the drivers' wages were effectively being slashed, the port allowed them to fuel up at the port at prices subsidized by the port. Last week, only quick and quiet negotiations managed to forestall a similar occurrence at the port.
If the protest goes nationwide, as some independent driver groups are threatening, Miami port officials fear the U.S. seaports would be crippled.
The trucking industry, especially local drayage companies and drivers, have been left behind in the international trade push, said Carmen Lunetta, Miami port director.
"Transportation is the heart and soul of international trade," Mr. Lunetta said. "We have to pay more attention (to truckers' needs) in the future."
* * * *
WHILE THE SOUTH FLORIDA shipping community can easily support in theory the dismantling of trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico, the likely reality on the home front concerns them.
"We in South Florida are highly dependent on (Caribbean Basin Initiative) trade," which accounts for about 30 percent of the international cargo moving through the region's seaports and airports, said Hector Calderon, president of King Ocean Central America SA.
Most of that volume is generated under Section 807 of the U.S. Tariff Schedules, which permits U.S. textiles to be exported to Caribbean plants that produce finished garments. The apparel then can enter the United States under duties applying only to the added value.
But, said several people at the conference, that advantage will be wiped out if the North American free-trade agreement is approved, granting goods produced in Mexico with completely duty-free entry into the United States.