US port ‘champion’ Cernak dies at 63

US port ‘champion’ Cernak dies at 63

Steven M. Cernak served as CEO of the ports of Galveston and Everglades, helping the latter to become the second-largest port in Florida. Photo credit: Port Everglades.

Steven M. Cernak, who led key dredging and port development projects as CEO at the ports of Galveston and Everglades and helped make the latter the second-largest port in Florida, died over the weekend after battling cancer. He was 63.

Cernak, the immediate past chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), was the CEO and port director at Port Everglades from February 2012, taking over from Phillip C. Allen. Cernak previously worked at the Port of Galveston and the Port of New York and New Jersey.

At Everglades, he helped the US Army Corps of Engineers advance a project to deepen and widen the harbor, which is scheduled for completion in 2022, and oversaw the construction of new cruise facilities. In June 2017, Everglades purchased three new Super Post-Panamax gantry cranes as part of a large-scale, $437.5 million capital improvement plan to get the Florida port big-ship ready. Those and other past improvements helped the port increase cargo volume 10.3 percent to 813,002 loaded TEU from 2015 to 2018, leapfrogging Miami as Florida’s second-busiest port in the process.

Kurt Nagle, AAPA’s CEO and president, mourned the loss of “one of the greatest champions of the port industry.”

“As chairman of AAPA last year, he dedicated all of his energy to promoting our industry,” Nagle said. “Even during his long illness, his zeal for this industry was unsurpassed. Whether it was attending the AAPA leadership summit or flying to Valparaiso, Chile, for the association's annual convention, he never wavered in his love of ports.”

As head of the Port of Galveston from 1999 to 2012, Cernak helped the Texas port double its revenue and become a major cruise gateway in the Gulf of Mexico. Under Cernak, Galveston sought a private operator to invest as much as $500 million in its breakbulk, dry bulk, and roll-on/roll-off facilities and to build a two-berth container terminal on the port’s west end.

During his tenure, Cernak negotiated an agreement with the Corps to deepen the Galveston Channel from 40 feet to 45 feet and secured federal funding for maintenance and new construction dredging to complete the project.

Prior to moving to Galveston, Cernak had been manager of port development for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He also held engineering positions with several private engineering consultancies in New Jersey.

Beth Rooney, assistant director of the port division of the port authority, recalled that Cernak worked on the Millenium Marine Rail, the port’s first on dock rail service. The port now has four. Rooney said she and Cernak sat across from each other at the authority offices at the World Trade Center.

“He was a very friendly, outgoing kind of guy … very much like a team player,” she said. “Always looking to make things better in the environment in which the ports operated.”

Contact Hugh R. Morley at and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.