The Tampa Port Authority's first financial commitment will be to attract container business in the Latin America trades.

The TPA's decision to develop the infrastructure for a regional container hub was bolstered by the release of a port-commissioned study.Thanks to projected long-term trade growth with nearby Latin America, the analysis said, Tampa is suddenly well-positioned for container growth.

U.S. containerized trade with South America, Central America, and the Caribbean Basin already rivals trade volume with Europe and is expected to expand at a pace at least 50 percent faster than Europe, the report by R.K. Johns & Associates of New York indicated.

The Port of Tampa, it said, must develop the transport infrastructure, marketing apparatus, and operational services if it is to benefit from its favorable location.

''We think Tampa is in the right time, at the right place, to take advantage of what we expect to be very strong container growth in the Latin American trades into the 21st century,'' William J. Coffey, president of R.K. Johns, said in a telephone interview. ''If you look at the sailing schedules of line-haul vessels, you will find that Tampa is strategically located as close to the Panama Canal as any other American port.''


Tampa will launch its first dedicated container facility in March 1999, with a 750-foot berth and 30 acres of storage, and then add another 100-feet of berth space later in the year, said Robert Steiner, Tampa's port director. ''We've got to show container carriers soon that we're committed to developing an infrastructure for what we expect to be an explosion of trade with Latin America,'' Mr. Steiner said.

The port committed 60 percent of its $100 million operating budget under its three-year plan to specifically develop those container facilities in effort attract container line services, Mr. Steiner said. ''We think we already have good inland connections with on-dock rail via dedicated service with CSX and are only 7.5 hours from Atlanta by truck,'' he said.

''The intermodal structure at Tampa can and must become a principal asset.'' A port can be stretched based upon inland rail and truck pricing and service, the report said. ''For a number of reasons, Tampa has the potential to partner effectively with CSX Transportation and provide competitive service and price as far north as Chicago.''

The growth of containerized ocean shipping with South and Central America and the Caribbean during the 1990s means that Tampa is well-positioned to develop a network of container feeder services, Mr. Steiner concurred. ''When it comes to Latin America, we've got three major advantages over other ports. That's location, location and location.''

Tampa handled roughly 1 million tons of general cargo in 1997. Mexico, Trinidad and Ukraine were its major trading partners for imports while China, Australia, India, Japan and Pakistan were its leading export markets. Sea Lion Ocean Freight launched the port's most recent container operation last year when it began 10-day service to Mexico.

The port hopes to capture 100,000 containers annually within the next four years and will seek to develop an additional 120 acres of port-owned property for a possible container storage area, Mr. Steiner said.

''We're at the point where we're thinking shipside gantry cranes right now,'' he explained, ''but we have visions of all sorts of things developing if and whenever Cuba opens up at our doorstep.''


''The market outlook, now that the countries of the Americas have some degree of political stability and are developing freer trade with their northern neighbors, is quite positive,'' the report said.

''As these markets within Tampa's geographic reach continue to grow, opportunities will present themselves if Tampa blends the necessary operational ingredients with the will to effectively develop in the marketplace.''

Container growth in the region is expected to increase by 652,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) between 1997 and 2001, the report said, ''and Tampa needs only to attract a modest share of the growth in this trade to develop a viable container business.''

The report said expansion in that period is projected to be 191,000 TEUs with the west coast South America, 180,000 TEUs with Central America, 144,000 TEUs with east coast South America, and 137,000 TEUs with the Caribbean, the report said.

Strategically located

Tampa is strategically located to tie into newly developed transshipment hubs at Freeport Container Terminal, Grand Bahamas, Kingston, Jamaica, and Manzanillo International Terminal and Coco Solo on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Panama Canal, Mr. Coffey said. ''These new relay hubs will be served by a combination of east-west line-haul vessels and secondary north-south ships and opportunities exist to attract some of these operations to Tampa,'' he said.

''We also see Tampa as being well-positioned in terms of facilities and location to capture roll-on, roll-off business because there's plenty of heavy equipment and other roll-on, roll-off traffic in the gulf,'' Mr. Coffey said. ''It's our considered opinion, supported by this report, that a potential market exists for container and ro-ro traffic that Tampa can be reasonably expected to access.''