Call it bad timing or just bad luck, but the $300 million TraPac container terminal that opened at the Port of Jacksonville at the start of this year couldn’t have debuted at a worse time.
The terminal, launched to great fanfare, started operating as the greatest global recession in decades reached perhaps its deepest point, ravaging global trade.
Yet the terminal — part of an ambitious plan to turn Jacksonville into a major gateway for the Southeast and lift it into third place among East Coast container ports after New York and Savannah — has gained enough business to make Jacksonville one of the few U.S. ports to show growth this year.
In the first eight months of fiscal 2009 through May, the port handled 8.9 percent more containers than in the same period a year earlier.
“It’s very difficult right now to bring in new business,” said Dennis Kelly, regional vice president and general manager of the TraPac terminal.
“Everyone is hunkered down, reducing vessels and loops in accordance with demand. But the bright side is that everything’s working well with some of the newest technology in the South Atlantic that’s very reliable, so we should be able to lure people here.”
Since it opened, the terminal has landed two all-water services from Asia through the Panama Canal operated by the New World Alliance, which consists of APL, Hyundai Merchant Marine and TraPac’s parent, MOL.
But volume will probably reach just 50,000 TEUs for the terminal this year, about half the original forecast. For the long term, Kelly isn’t fazed. “It’s just a matter of nurturing it along and getting a good customer base,” he said.
The new terminal, the first of two being built on Dames Point, is one of two major projects to open in the last year aimed at capitalizing on the Panama Canal’s 2014 expansion. To supporters, the TraPac terminal and the Mobile, Ala., Container Terminal represent a broad pattern of activity, from port construction to new rail connections and distribution centers, that could reshape shipping east of the Mississippi River and alter supply chains in east-west and north-south ocean trades
The Jacksonville Port Authority this summer will issue a request for qualifications from architectural and engineering firms to design a $300 million terminal for Hanjin Shipping. Jaxport aims to issue the contract for the terminal’s design and help with permitting issues in September.
“The long pole in the tent for us will be permitting,” said Rick Ferrin, Jaxport’s executive director. “We’ll have to do mitigation for filling in some wetlands to give them the depth they want.”
Hanjin requires a depth of 400 meters from the dock face to the back perimeter of the container yard, so it can install automated rail-mounted gantry cranes to move containers from ships into the yard.
Design and permitting will take some 18 months, so the contract for construction will be put out for bids in March 2011. Construction will start around June 2011, “so we’re looking to open the terminal as early as December 2012 or, worst case, in June of 2013,” Ferrin said.
He said Jaxport asked Hanjin if it wanted to slow development given the state of the world economy. Hanjin declined, saying it wanted to proceed as planned.
When fully built, the 800,000-TEU Hanjin terminal and the 1 million-TEU TraPac terminal, combined with the existing Blount Island and Talleyrand container terminals, will allow the port to handle 2.4 million TEUs a year. It handled almost 700,000 TEUs in fiscal 2008, ending last Sept. 30.
With all that new capacity, Jaxport should be in good shape to handle the post-Panamax vessels that will transit the Panama Canal when it opens a third set of locks in 2014. But those ships — which could run up to 12,600 TEUs — will have deeper drafts than the 4,400-TEU vessels that can currently transit the canal, so Jaxport is in the middle of a three-part program to dredge its channel to 45 feet or more. It also will redirect the tidal flows at the mouth of the St. John’s River that now limit the hours when a Panamax ships can access the port.
The main shipping channel — all 23 miles of the river to the Talleyrand terminal — should be dredged to 41 feet by the end of next summer. The Chaseville turn also is being widened.
The second project, which must be completed before dredging to 48 feet can be started, is a navigation project called Milepoint, three or four miles in from the Atlantic entrance where the river intersects with the Intracoastal Waterway.
Now, when a westbound Panamax ship drawing 38 or 39 feet comes into the channel during an outgoing tide, it gets hit first by a tremendous flow of current coming from the Intracoastal Waterway to the south and then by another flow from the northern waterway that can spin it around in the channel.
As a result, pilots have restricted Panamax vessels to passing Milepoint during two four-and-a-half-hour windows every day.
Jaxport is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to design and build a $60 million jetty on the south bank of the river by 2013 to “train” the outgoing tide coming up from the south so it intersects and neutralizes the tide coming down from the north in the middle of the river channel.
“It will cancel out that turning effect and allow ships to pass at any time,” Ferrin said. “The post-Panamax dredging down to 48 feet depends on free passage up the river.”
Contact Peter T. Leach at firstname.lastname@example.org.