TAMPA — Auto manufacturers are making more and more vehicles in Mexico for the U.S. market. But those millions of cars still have to get here somehow. U.S. ports are competing with railroads to see which industry will profit from bringing in that valuable four-wheeled cargo.
Now the Port of Tampa has joined that race.
The Tampa Port Authority announced Thursday that it had signed a "letter of intent" with Amports, one of the leading auto processing companies in the United States, to develop a new specialized terminal at the port dedicated to capturing this cargo opportunity.
The new facility will speed the unloading of vehicles off ships, process them and then ship them by rail or by highway across Florida and the rest of the country.
"How fast, how successful everything will be will be dictated by the market," said Raul Alfonso, the port's chief commercial officer. "But we are very excited by all of this."
The port did not release any financial details about the deal. The Tampa Port Authority and Amports have agreed to equally split the costs of transforming an area near berth 202 off Hookers Point into the new auto processing terminal.
"We believe that Tampa is right in the sweet spot for short sea shipments out of Mexico," Amports CEO Steven Rand said in a prepared statement. "We also believe it will become a gateway port for export finished vehicles."
Amports moves a million vehicles annually and is one of the largest car processors in North America. It has two port facilities and a railhead in Mexico, so it's already entrenched in that nation's expanding auto manufacturing sector.
That means Tampa doesn't have to go out and attract auto manufacturers on its own — Amports is already serving them. That's good for the port, which handles very little vehicle cargo.
The Port of Tampa can already accommodate roll-on/roll-off (also known as RORO or ro-ro) vessels designed to quickly roll wheeled cargoes — including automobiles — right off the ship. But auto manufacturers need more specialized facilities to handle ships full of new vehicles.
The port's deal with Amports calls for them to jointly transform an abandoned 100,000-square-foot warehouse into an automotive processing facility, where the new vehicles could be customized with extras — car spoilers, striping, new paint — before being shipped out.
"We have not had a processor here before, and that is important for the manufacturers," said Wade Elliott, the port's senior marketing director. "They need the comfort and knowledge that there is a company that can run the whole gamut of auto processing."
The Port of Tampa wants the new terminal done by early 2014. By 2015, Alfonso estimated, the number of Mexican-made cars is expected to reach 4 million.
"A huge piece of that is destined for the U.S. market," he said. "That's a lot of pressure on railroads to provide the necessary capacity. We are counting on Tampa to become an efficient alternative to those markets."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.