Port Miami is investing millions of dollars to improve the terminal fluidity, while also offering new options for transloading and inland rail to convince cargo owners that it can offer more than only serving businesses operating in southern Florida.
The relationship between the port and truckers has been contentious. Fluidity and reliability haven’t been as strong as truckers would like in recent years. Some turn times are quick, but others can be many hours in length, making it hard to anticipate what an experience will be on any given day.
Port Miami has the depth
With China being Miami’s main trading partner, larger vessels will only put these issues front and center. Miami handled an 11,000-TEU mega-ship in October 2017, and although it doesn’t receive the 14,000-TEU mega-ship calling at other East Coast locations, its depth of 50 feet at mean low tide makes it possible to handle those container ships.
The port has identified steps to hopefully maintain fluidity in the discharging from vessels and mounting containers onto trucks, investing in equipment that will be necessary to ensure growth doesn’t become crushing to the port's and truckers' customers. Growth in Miami, however, is limited if the reach remains confined to south Florida, so the port wants to work with partners to offer services to appeal to customers in other parts of the state.
Shippers constantly monitor how their supply chains are operating, and the fluidity of a port matters. Ports compete with one another to win business and sell themselves as better than others. Investing in the future can distinguish which ports will remain relevant and fall behind — a working theory behind all the work in Norfolk, Charleston, and Savannah.
Through the first quarter, container traffic at Miami increased 8.6 percent from 2017 totals, including more than a 14 percent jump in laden imports. In 2017, though, laden container volume declined 1.4 percent to 768,052 TEU, according to data from PIERS, a sister product of JOC.com. Overall market share has remained relatively flat both in the first quarter and last year.
Although Miami cannot compete with the largest Southeast US port, Savannah, on size or service offerings, it can win business with short turn times and access to battleground destinations in Florida where truck times from Georgia are comparable.
A dray from Savannah’s Garden City Terminal to Orlando, for example, is about 280 miles compared with 236 miles from Miami and 140 miles from Jacksonville. The Sunshine State is home to 21 million Americans and is known as a consumption state. Ports in Miami and Everglades have a geographic advantage in southern Florida, but capturing other markets within the state and region is key to sustainable growth.
Port Miami receives a grant to improve turn times, will invest in cranes
The US Department of Transportation awarded a $7 million grant in June to Miami-Dade County to replace two terminal gates with automated systems.
“In order to continue to grow the economic significance of Port Miami, sustained investments in infrastructure are critical. Funding for the new automated gates will not only increase capacity and processing speed at our seaport, but it will also lower costs for shippers,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez in June.
The benefit to the shipper is time. Automated gate systems are an important tool to reduce truck turn times through a terminal and in place in Savannah, Norfolk, and Charleston. As a truck travels towards Port Boulevard, the Port Miami tunnel on Interstate 395, data are optically read and transferred electronically to the port. Through technology, port officials know which trucks are close to arrival.
“When a trucker arrives right now, he tells the clerk about his transaction, then the clerk goes and validates the transaction. There’s an inspection and the driver gets a ticket at a valet location,” said Andy Hecker, assistant port director, adding the system currently relies upon a worker in a truck near the gate. “It’s an extra step. You’re cleared to go through the gate, queue up, then a person tells the driver where to go when.”
By getting the pre-arrival information through radio frequency identification technology 15 to 20 minutes in advance, a terminal appointment system might be a possibility in the future, Hecker suggested.
Any improvement through technology could help repair a fractured relationship between truckers and terminal operators. Last December, drivers staged a boycott at Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co. over excessive turn times. Pepe Alvarez, dispatcher at First Coast Logistics’ Miami office, told JOC.com at the time that three-hour turns were common, and in extreme cases reached eight hours, which makes it impossible to complete more than one trip per day.
“One of things that comes with growth is that you bottleneck, then fix it, bottleneck elsewhere, and fix it. It’s not a secret we’ve had periodic issues with the trucking community at our gates, but then we work to resolve them and improve the situation,” Hecker said.
The back-and-forth could become an issue as the port transitions from manual pickers to rubber-tired gantry cranes in the South Florida Container Terminal container stacks. It’ll be a six-phase approach in which a group of stacks will be taken offline while equipment is installed.
Handling larger vessels is also vital to the future in Miami because China is the largest trading partner representing nearly 140,000 import TEU in 2017.
Of its 13 ship-to-shore cranes, six in Miami are capable of handling post-Panamax vessels. Four are in the procurement process that will take several years to order, build, and deliver.
By investing in both cranes, Miami could make a stronger case to cargo owners that it can handle multiple 14,000-TEU mega-ships simultaneously while also ensuring truckers can enter and exit the facility in a timely fashion.
“Asian cargo coming to Miami on post-Panamax vessels has gone up 312 percent through the Panama Canal since 2014, so it’s working well for us,” Hecker said.
Transloading near Interstate 95, rail service to Orlando
In Savannah, transloading is popular because the main container terminal is about 10 to 15 minutes from Interstate 95. Although on the southern tip of Florida, Miami is also near the interstate.
Port Miami has teamed up with Florida East Coast Railway to build a transloading facility about 12 miles away near Miami International Airport, served by double stack intermodal service three times per day handling up to 200 containers per trip. The grand opening of the 60-door crossdock facility is scheduled for October, operated by Omni Transloading and Logistics.
“This is a perfect idea. All those big ships come from Asia for the huge consumption market that is Florida, but then you can keep the ocean boxes close to Miami for export and also saving time and money by putting the cargo in a larger 53-foot containers. We’re even getting traction on the idea of putting 53-foot containers on rail now to Atlanta, a new market for us,” said Eric Olafson, Port Miami’s director of global trade and business development.
The port is also working with Florida East Coast Railway and Omni Transloading and Logistics to build up existing service to Titusville, Florida, less than an hour east of Orlando. Olafson said containers will be imported to Miami, sent on rail to Titusville, and then drayed to hotels and theme parks in Orlando.
“Given the rates in trucking, it’s cheaper now to rail it to Titusville than all truck. Florida East Coast Railway likes it because it’s a backhaul lane for them. For every five railcars that come into Miami, four of them go back empty. So there is a surge in business for us in central Florida,” he said.
Port Miami officials hope the investment will pay off in the long term by offering cargo owners reasons to choose Miami for other reasons than just deliver goods to people in southern Florida.