Ports downplay 'friendly' Panama Canal distance competition

mjohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Docks at Port Manatee are expected to begin receiving cargo and ships that have passed through an enlarged Panama Canal by 2015. Port Manatee and Port Tampa Bay both claim to be the closest U.S. port to the canal.CHARLES SCHELLE/Bradenton Herald

PORT MANATEE - Call it a "friendly" competition.

One year away from the tentative opening of a widened, deepened Panama Canal, the two biggest ports on Florida's Gulf Coast are vying for the title "Closest U.S. Port to the Panama Canal."

Both trot the information out publicly, with Tampa claiming to be the closest "full service" port to the canal, and Manatee branding itself as the closest deep water port. But officials at Port Manatee and the newly named Port Tampa Bay say they don't want to make a big deal of the fact that they're putting out the same claim, because they work together in numerous capacities.

Each port is looking to get a share of a predicted growth in cargo traffic through the Panama Canal starting in 2015. Proximity to the canal is being marketed as a cost savings measure for shippers who want to get their goods into the United States for the lowest shipping cost.

In clarifying the position of Port Tampa Bay on the distance issue, the port's director of public relations, Andy Fobes, said Tampa is the closest "full-service" port to the canal. He emphasized "full-service," noting that the Tampa port offers some services Port Manatee does not, including ship building and repair.

Any friction between the ports on the distance issue, Fobes said, is part of a "friendly competition."

In its most recent official directory, Port Manatee states that it is the closest deepwater U.S. port to the canal, data backed up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Navigational coordinates back the claim as well: Port Manatee is 1,102 miles from the Panama Canal, while Port of Tampa Bay is 1,116 miles away.

Port Manatee officials downplay the perceived competition between the two ports, as well. Port Deputy Executive Director Dave Sanford said he could not confirm that Port Manatee is closer to the canal than Port of Tampa Bay. Nor would he refute the other port's claim.

"We're one of the closest ports to the Panama Canal," he said. "I suspect every port in the vicinity looks at it in a similar fashion."

In a prepared remark sent to the Herald on Thursday, Paul Anderson did nothing to portray the ports as rivals. Anderson gave Port Tampa Bay's annual "state of the port" speech Wednesday, unveiling the port's new name. It was previously known as Port of Tampa.

"I, along with my Florida port counterparts, personally helped to create a joint marketing program that helped showcase all of Florida's ports," Anderson stated. "We will continue to collaborate with our public and private sector partners to ensure that Florida remains a global leader in commerce."

Increased cargo traffic is expected once so-called "post-Panamax" super-sized cargo ships can begin navigating the enlarged canal in 2015. The $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion project has been underway since 2007.

But the project may be in danger of a delayed opening. An international construction consortium working on the project is threatening to stop work if $1.6 billion in cost overruns are not paid. Still, Sanford said Port Manatee is not planning for delays in canal construction.

New locks, dredging and excavating in the Panama Canal zone will allow for ships up to 160 feet wide and 1,200 feet long. At present, the largest ships that can pass through the locks are 106 feet wide and 964 feet long.

According to the project website for the canal, the dredging will remove 8.7 million cubic meters for material from the 51-mile-long canal. The depth of the canal at the locks will be 50 feet at its lowest water level.

Port Manatee can accommodate ships with drafts as deep as 40 feet at low tide.

Sanford said Port Manatee won't see the largest ships at its docks. Larger vessels, he said, will offload their cargo to smaller ships in many cases at foreign ports south of Port Manatee. Those smaller ships will carry the additional cargo volume going through the Panama Canal to U.S. ports.

While each of Manatee's and Tampa's ports is marketing itself to get the most new business, they will work jointly on several projects. Port Manatee and Port of Tampa Bay are exploring efforts to secure a joint maintenance contract, and joint use of Army Corps of Engineers dredging equipment. Port Manatee trains Port of Tampa Bay security staff, and the two agencies coordinate on requesting security grants.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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