Port Director: Panama Expansion, Larger Ships Make Miami A 'Global Gateway'

Jun 27, 2016

On Sunday morning, a 984-foot-long Chinese container vessel – aptly renamed Panama – became the first ship to enter the new, wider locks of the Panama Canal. The waterway’s $5.5 billion expansion ran over budget and almost two years behind schedule. But now that it can accommodate more massive, post-Panamax ships, it should be a boon to U.S. harbors like PortMiami.

That's because PortMiami, after its own $2 billion expansion, can now receive post-Panamax vessels – and the first from the Panama Canal arrives here early next month.

RELATED: Canal Quarrel: How PortMiami's Future Is Tied To Tiny Panama

PortMiami is already Miami’s second-largest economic engine and its door to the almost $50 billion annual trade it does with Latin America. But that commerce, at least in dollar terms, is slumping quite a bit these days. So to better understand what the post-Panamax future means for South Florida, WLRN’s Tom Hudson and Tim Padgett sat down with PortMiami Director Juan Kuryla at his offices – before he headed to Panama for the 102-year-old canal’s re-opening.

Has there been a lot of anxiety here, in ports like Miami’s, waiting for the Panama Canal expansion to finally be finished?

I'll tell you, anxiety, yes. But also anticipation, excitement. This is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. It’s a project of tremendous, tremendous magnitude, not only for the people of Panama, but for ports worldwide. There’s been so much effort by so many ports to be post-Panamax ready – the day couldn’t have come any sooner.

Let’s switch to July 9 – when PortMiami will for the first time welcome a post-Panamax ship from the Panama Canal. Describe what’s been done to make PortMiami ready for that.

Yeah, July 9 is a huge day for us. We’ve been receiving the larger vessels already, but yes, we have built the tunnel that connects the port directly with the interstate highway system. We have dredged to 50 feet, becoming the only port south of Virginia with a capacity to accommodate vessels drafting up to that depth. We have restored on-dock rail. And we have acquired super post-Panamax Gantry cranes.

What does the port expansion represent – the bottom line in terms of economic opportunity?

Having Miami as a deep-water port, the return is thousands and thousands of jobs...a very large snowball effect. -Juan Kuryla

Over 50 percent of the products we buy here in Florida are not coming in through Florida ports. They’re coming in through Savannah, through Charleston – they’re coming in through L.A. and Long Beach and being railed all the way over here. And you know, that is the one stat that really bothers us.

So having Miami as a deep-water port, the return is thousands and thousands of jobs that are generated by the industry. With the larger ships, we’ll be unloading more containers at the same time, so there is a very large snowball effect.

Panama Canal Director Jorge Quijano told us that Panama plans not just to receive bigger ships but to make itself a larger logistics and financial center. And he said they were hoping to take some business away from Miami. What sort of rivalry are we seeing develop between Panama and Miami to be the commercial gateway to the Americas?

PortMiami Director Juan Kuryla
Credit PortMiami

That’s a great question. Jorge is my friend, but of course he wants Panama to become a hub. I think there’s plenty for everyone. What we have that I think Panama doesn’t have is that we’re right here at the tip of the peninsula in the United States.

But the opening of the expanded Panama Canal comes at a time when the Latin American economies have slowed down considerably, as has the Chinese economy –and world trade has certainly slowed down.

Well, last year, fiscal 2015, we were up 15 percent.

By volume or value?

Volume. This year the first eight months indicate 5 percent growth over the previous year. But in terms of trade, one of the advantages that Port Miami has is that we’re very well diversified regarding where the cargo is coming from. If you look at our top 10 trading countries, you have countries from Asia, from Europe, from South America. In fact, we have changed our logo. We no longer say “Gateway to the Americas.” We call ourselves “A Global Gateway” now.

You’ve seen a fully laden post-Panamax ship. Describe it.

It’s massive. It’s like you’re bouncing a basketball and then you have LeBron James bouncing a basketball. It’s that much bigger and greater. It changes the skyline. It’s a wow factor. If you like ships, and if you understand even just a little bit of what this represents for a community, you just say, “Wow.”