Carmen Lunetta doesn't sound surprised that neighboring Port Everglades claims it will overtake the Port of Miami as South Florida's biggest containerport in a few years.

They're talking in the future, says Mr. Lunetta, director of the Port of Miami. We're talking about today.The new kid on the block in container handling, so to speak, is making strides in attracting business from archrival Miami. But Port Everglades, located in Fort Lauderdale, still faces environmental opposition to a key development plan.

It's also 25 miles away from Miami, the U.S. business hub for Latin America. Many warehouses, freight forwarders and banks serving the trade and maritime industry are located in Miami.

Competition also looms for cruise ships. C. Thomas Burke, who became executive director of Port Everglades about a year and a half ago, doesn't expect to surpass Miami as the No. 1 cruise port. But he says there's a niche for his port in serving one-day cruise operators and super-luxury cruise lines.

Port Everglades, which works on a calender year budget, handled more than 1 million cruise passengers in 1987, reflecting in large part the number of people taking one-day day cruises in the Caribbean.

In the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, Miami handled over 2.6 million cruise passengers and was the home port for eight cruise companies. The cruise business and Miami are synonymous, Mr. Burke concedes.

But when it comes to container cargo, Mr. Burke says Port Everglades is geographically in the catbird seat. We have land to develop, the steamship lines are getting used to coming here, we're close to the ocean and we have good labor, he says.

I believe in three to five years Port Everglades will surpass Miami in containers. Mr. Burke gestures confidently toward port facilities from the expansive windows in the port's new office building. Mr. Burke served with the U.S. Agency for International Development and as a special assistant to the secretary of agriculture during the Carter administration. Most recently he was executive director of the Cleveland-Cuyahog a County Port Authority.

Port Everglades' traditional strength has been in handling shipments of oil, steel and other bulk goods, which still account for the majority of its cargo volume.

The pendulum often swings back and forth when closely located ports such as Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., vie for predominance, says Leo Donovan, a shipping expert with Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc., a consulting company based in Bethesda, Md.

In the business of American seaports, I don't think any one port can claim and hold a sustainable competitive advantage. Everything one port does can be done by another, Mr. Donovan says. Both ports are spending millions of dollars to expand their facilities.

Miami, which handles very little bulk cargo, has lost the business of Crowley Caribbean Transport, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Crowley Maritime Corp. CCT switched in September 1986 to Port Everglades.

The Miami port director discounts Mr. Burke's claim that Port Everglades is closer to the ocean. The marketplace is in Miami, he says, adding that it costs Crowley $2.5 million to $3 million a year to transport cargo from Port Everglades to its central Miami warehouse.

But Robert Randolph, head of operations for Crowley at Port Everglades, said that isn't the case. Many of Crowley's customers are in Fort Lauderdale's Broward Country or Palm Beach County, he notes.

Port Everglades also has a nearby rail ramp to Florida East Coast Railway, which is closer to its facilities than the railheads in Miami, he said. The carrier also has more space in Port Everglades and can turn its vessels in and out of the port faster, he said.

Throughout the 1980s, Miami lost cargo not only to Port Everglades, but also to the Port of Palm Beach and the Miami River, which is non-union, says Mr. Donovan.

Since Crowley Caribbean left Miami, Mr. Lunetta says, the port has added eight to 10 lines to offset the loss. They include the large Danish-based carrier Maersk Line, Rotterdam-based Hapag-Lloyd, the Yugoslavian-based Jugolinija.

In addition to winning those carriers on the East-West and Europe trades, Miami has won the business of Mexican Line, Ecuadorian Line, Lykes Lines, Navieras de Puerto Rico, Seaboard Marine and Linea Marlago.

Miami handled about 2.1 million tons of cargo shipped in containers and trailers in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. That port also handled almost 280,000 tons of roll-on roll-off cargo, such as cars and yachts, according to port statistics.

Each port breaks down its cargo statistics differently.

But roughly 1.3 million tons of container cargo moved through Port Everglades in the last calender year. Port Everglades also handled about 136,000 tons of roll-on roll-off cargo, such as vehicles, and about 320,000 tons of breakbulk cargo, such as lumber.

Mr. Lunetta's strong leadership and creation of an intermodal division to attract new cargo is helping to arrest Port Everglade's challenge, says Mr. Donovan.

As a Dade County project engineer in the 1960s, Mr. Lunetta oversaw construction of the port from a collection of small islands in Biscayne Bay. Industry people says Mr. Lunetta's name is synonymous with the Port of Miami. He has been port director for nine years and has solid support from the county commissioner to run the port.

The two port heads work under different political structures.

Mr. Lunetta is appointed by the Dade County manager, who, in turn, is appointed by elected county commissioners.

Mr. Burke, who has a two-year contract, was appointed by the seven-member Port Everglades Authority Commission. The commission fought frequently with Mr. Burke's predecessor, James Connolly. But industry people say Mr. Burke seems to have developed good support within the commission and port community.

The Port of Miami launched the new intermodal division last year. It works essentially as a third-party shipper's agent, by handling truck and rail transportation once cargo arrives by sea into Miami.

The division is now handling 300 containers a week and plans to increase it to 400 a week by September, said M.C. Wodka, manager of the intermodal division.

The idea is to make the area's high inland freight rates competitive with such ports as Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga.

Mr. Lunetta hopes to attract ships coming through the Panama Canal to call first at Miami and then ship by rail or truck to other East Coast ports, rather than making direct calls to various ports. That would create a North- South corridor similar to the popular West Coast-East Coast intermodal movement, he says.

Despite Miami's strength, Port Everglades has the potential to win more container cargo from Miami, says Pat Brennan, who follows the maritime industry for Temple, Barker, & Sloane, a transportation consulting firm based in Lexington, Mass. Beside Crowley, other big shipping companies that call at Port Everglades include Sea-Land Service Inc., Nedlloyd Lines and Trans Freight Lines.

Mr. Brennan cites the port's aggressive management team, shrewd marketing, and the construction of a 150-acre Southport complex with three container cranes and an intermodal facility.

However, there's a potential snag in the Port Everglades plan. Several environmental groups have opposed a turning notch for the Southport complex that would threaten the port's mangrove forest and wildlife.

Without the turning notch, large ships would be forced to back down the channel, which would be very costly.

Mr. Burke hopes to get government permits within the next two months. He won't say what Port Everglades will do if it doesn't get that approval but adds, We're going to get it.

According to one industry source, If he (Mr. Burke) doesn't get that, then a lot of what he's saying goes out the window.

Like Miami, Port Everglades is working to lower rail and trucking rates

from southern Florida. It has two consolidators at the port who work with ocean carriers, rail and truck companies to arrange transportation. Port Everglades officials couldn't provide figures for how much was being handled through the consolidators.

Mr. Burke, who says he considers himself more a marketing type than operations expert, plans to spend $2 million this year on marketing and promotion.

Mr. Lunetta has about $750,000 earmarked for marketing and promotion in the current fiscal year. It's infrastructure, capital improvements and demand for the cargo that matter, he says. Money doesn't bring cargo to a port.