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PortMiami goes fishing for more cargo business as ships back up off California coast

·4 min read

With dozens of cargo ships backed up as far as the eye can see off the coast of Southern California, Miami sees an opportunity.

PortMiami, along with others in Florida, has been running smoothly during the supply chain crunch. PortMiami officials say there’s been record cargo offloading recently but only one ship that needed to drop anchor and wait in the past six weeks.

“It’s really unprecedented,” said Juan Kuryla, the director of PortMiami, adding that he’s “never seen this type of volume,” in over 23 years working at the port. The port has seen consistent increases of 8-12% in cargo activity each month over the past year, officials said.

Kuryla said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniela Levine Cava reached out five weeks ago asking what he could do to redirect ships to Port Miami.

Kuryla said the port did an outreach effort to cargo lines to let them know PortMiami was ready to move goods, and he worked with trucking companies and the International Longshoremen’s union to ensure that there would be enough workers and drivers to handle the cargo. Port officials say they’ve also rallied distribution centers and warehouses to extended their hours to receive more cargo, as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has to inspect cargo coming from abroad.

Kuryla also cited investments the county had made in the port, including new cranes, improved freight rail and the underwater tunnel that connects Port Miami to the MacArthur causeway, that helped the ramp up go smoothly.

“Without those previous long-term investments, we would have not been about to do this amount of cargo,” Kuryla said.

Port Miami and many other Florida ports are currently operating 24/7, while the Los Angeles port is still trying to transition to around-the-clock operations after President Joe Biden announced a deal with the port to keep it running 24/7.

Seeing an opening, Governor Ron DeSantis has touted Florida ports as a way to each the nation’s supply chain woes ahead of the holidays.

“We look at some of the supply issues happening in California, they [the cargo ships] can come here,” DeSantis said at a press conference earlier this month. “We will cut the red tape; we will work with our ports.”

Michael Rubin, the president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council, said the group is hoping to make this a longer term effort to boost Florida ports as shipping destinations by shifting the industry status quo of cargo ships heading straight for California.

While ships coming from Asia have to pay passage through the Panama Canal, Rubin said those costs are offset by Florida ports’ lower rates and their ability to offload quickly, instead of having to wait in a line of up to 100 ships off the coast of California. He pointed out that the World Bank and IHS Markit report ranked the Port of Los Angeles as one of the least efficient in the world.

“I think they’ve been fat and happy over there for some time and why do anything different if you’re the big dog?” said Rubin of the ports of Los Angeles, the largest on the continent, and Long Beach. “We want to prove to everyone that we have capacity to move these goods and this is the perfect opportunity to do that. Are we taking advantage of failures in California? Absolutely we are.”

But even beyond the political jabs at California, ports across the country are experiencing congestion, as shipping containers have to line up for lengthy waits to unload their cargo.

Professor Yossi Shefi, the director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, pointed out that one reason Florida is not experiencing cargo ship backups is because is because the number of ships is so small in comparison to other ports not just in Southern California, but also in places like Savannah, New York and New Jersey.

“When every other port has ships anchored out as far as the eye can see and ports in Florida don’t, it’s not necessarily because they’re the most efficient in the country,” he said. “The cargo shipping companies may not want to go there.”

In particular, PortMiami, the 10th largest in the country, according to some reports, has not been seen as an ideal place to unload cargo because of its geographical distance from much of the country.

But Kuryla, the director of PortMiami, says that they’ve been continuously investing in infrastructure over the years, more so than their competitors.

“We’re seeing the dollars invested turn into real financial returns,” he said. “Our mayor was on this and now we see the volume, we’re working every day to move this cargo quicker and quicker.”

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