FL: Port of Miami Rail Project Expected to Boost Trade

July 14--Construction begins Friday on a nearly $50-million rail project at the Port of Miami that is critical to the port's plans to increase trade and attract the super cargo ships that will begin arriving after the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2014.

The multi-phase rail project includes repairing a rail bridge out of commission since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, construction of a 15-acre rail yard on the port's Dodge Island, and renovating Florida East Coast Railway track linking the port to northbound tracks and the FEC rail yard in Hialeah.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and local officials are expected for the Friday groundbreaking for the project, which will reconnect the port to the national rail system.

"This is all about the post-Panamax world,'' said Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami. "This means we'll be able to connect the port to 70 to 78 percent of the American population by rail in one to four days.''

So-called post-Panamax ships, which have double the capacity of the largest cargo ships that now call at Florida ports, will be able to traverse the Panama Canal after it is expanded.

As the first U.S. port north of Panama, Miami is eager to take advantage of the increased trade the big ships are expected to generate. But other ports up and down the East Coast also will be competing for post-Panamax traffic.

The rail link is part of a three-prong plan to transform the Port of Miami by 2014.

The other components are a $1 billion tunnel linking the Interstate system to the port and a $150 million project to deepen the port channel to a depth of 50 feet to accommodate post-Panamax ships. The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to finish design work for the Deep-Dredge project this fall and construction is slated to get underway in the summer of 2012.

"Without the rail, what does the Deep Dredge mean? Zero,'' said Johnson.

That's because the nation's biggest buyers, companies such as Walmart Stores and Target, want their products to reach market in the shortest possible time and as cheaply as possible.

Cargo moving through the Panama Canal and then via a Port of Miami/FEC connection, port officials said, could reach a number of major Eastern and Midwest cities one to two days sooner than transit through Port of Miami competitors such as Norfolk, Va., and New York that already have channels deep enough to accommodate post-Panamax vessels. Shipping via the megaships also is cheaper.

"Every major port throughout the country has a rail connection,'' said Husein Cumber, FEC's executive vice president of corporate development. "With the expansion of the Panama Canal, as additional cargo moves to the East Coast, the only way the Port of Miami was going to continue to be competitive was with this rail link. This gives Miami the ability to compete against ports that are looking to trans-ship Asian cargo.''

The alternative would be a future as a smaller regional port, said Kevin Lynskey, assistant port director, rather than one that could serve cities ranging from Atlanta to Cincinnati, Ohio.

The combination of a deeper port and rail link, Lynskey said, "should help Florida win back a larger chunk of Asian trade.'' Now, about 60 percent of container merchandise from China, Japan and other Asian markets consumed in Florida comes from outside the state, he said. Most of it arrives in the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Calif., or Savannah, Ga., and is moved by rail and truck to Florida.

Since Hurricane Wilma knocked out the rail bridge to the port, containers have been trucked to Hialeah, tying up traffic in congested downtown Miami and delaying the arrival of cargo at its final destination.

The rail project, which will generate an estimated 822 jobs during the construction phase, is financed by a $22.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, $10.9 million from the Florida Department of Transportation, $10.9 million from FEC and $4.8 million from the Port of Miami.

"You have everyone with skin in the game,'' said Johnson.

The first two phases of the rail project will include rehabilitating the old bascule bridge and reconstructing a port rail link that would allow cargo to move by train from the port on tracks on the north side of Bayside Marketplace and across Biscayne Boulevard before curving north to just beyond NE 71st Street where it would veer west to the FEC yard near Miami International Airport or continue on to northern destinations. The renovated track would allow trains to move at 25 mph rather than the current 5 mph, said the FEC's Cumber.

After the port tunnel is completed in 2014, work is expected to begin on the new port rail yard, said Cumber, and on needed modifications at the Hialeah rail yard.

Eventually, about 25 percent of container traffic will move off the port by rail, said Lynskey, but the bulk of cargo -- especially that destined for Florida markets -- will move through the new four-lane tunnel.

The port projects, said Cumber, "will help diversify the economy and allow Miami to become a true international trade hub.''

Copyright 2011 - The Miami Herald

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