WEST PALM BEACH — The expansion of the Panama Canal could turn Florida ports into major players in global trade, the Florida Chamber Foundation said this week — but its optimistic outlook was met with skepticism from logistics experts.
The Florida Chamber Foundation, a Tallahassee nonprofit affiliated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the state could create 150,000 trade and logistics jobs over the next five years. But Tim Feemster, head of Foremost Quality Logistics in Dallas, called that projection "aggressive."
"There's not going to be a major shift in volume because of the Panama Canal expansion," Feemster said.
But the Florida Chamber Foundation sees it differently. The huge ships that set sail from China unload their cargo in Los Angeles and other Pacific ports, and the goods are shipped by train and truck to the East Coast. The biggest cargo vessels can't squeeze through the Panama Canal today, but the shipping channel is being expanded to allow so-called post-Panamax ships through.
That creates a big-time opportunity for Florida, said Tony Carvajal, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation.
"We haven't been capturing this international trade market," Carvajal said. "We've got to start changing the mentality so we're no longer the end of the line, where goods come into Los Angeles and then end up in Miami. We want to be the start of the line."
Logistics experts say Florida is unlikely to transform into a major import destination because it's far from population centers in the rest of the country. The larger ships that would be able to sail through the Panama Canal would be too big for the Port of Tampa. The best chance for an increase in business would be from more ships continuing on to Tampa after arriving at other major ports, such as those in the Caribbean.
Companies that import goods from China will be unloading them at ports in Charleston, S.C., Norfolk, Va., or Baltimore, Feemster said. Goods bound for the Midwest will keep coming through Los Angeles, he said.
"It's still cheaper and faster to get all the way to Dallas, Memphis, Kansas City and Chicago from the West Coast ports," he said.
Bill Diehl, president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau, likewise anticipates only small shifts in cargo traffic.
Florida has spent $425 million on ports over the past three years to prepare for the expansion of the Panama Canal. That includes deepening the Port of Miami to 50 feet.