TAMPA — When behemoth container ships start sailing through the widened Panama Canal later this year, they will not come to Port Tampa Bay.
But with more cargo expected to come to the eastern United States by sea, the port is betting that it can stake a claim to some of the new cargo traffic flowing through the canal. Bigger ships might come to Tampa even if the biggest ones don't.
The port is spending $21.5 million on a pair of new cranes that will be able to unload bigger container ships, and it is investing millions more to make it easier for trucks and trains to exit the port and be on their way. The cranes will pass beneath the Sunshine Skyway bridge in March and be up and running by May, just before the canal expansion is scheduled to open.
"Our timing couldn't be better," Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson said Thursday.
The port estimates that the equivalent of 500,000 shipping containers make their way into Central Florida each year, mostly by truck and train, and it wants to handle more of them.
Port officials say the mega-ships that ports in cities such as Miami and Charleston, S.C., are hoping to lure will never sail here. The port handles relatively few shipping containers as is. And it's on the Gulf Coast, where the gently sloping continental shelf makes it far more difficult and expensive to carve a deeper shipping channel.
"We don't have any illusions that we're going to be Singapore or Shanghai," said Wade Elliott, the port's vice president of marketing and business development. "But you know what, there's half a million containers out there with our name on it."
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Port Tampa Bay, long a destination for bulk cargo like fuel and phosphates, has been trying to get a foothold in the growing market for shipping containers. And as shippers start to shift the way they move goods across the world, the port thinks it has a shot at bringing more boxes to its berths.
Two changes in particular could benefit Tampa.
If shipping lines start offering more routes that connect Asia with the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, the port hopes it can talk them into making an intermediate stop here — becoming something like a local stop on a global bus line.
And years from now, trade analysts say, a hub-and-spoke shipping system could gain steam, where mega-ships stacked with thousands of shipping containers stop at Caribbean ports and send containers on to smaller ports aboard smaller ships. That's why when the U.S. Maritime Administration analyzed the effects of the canal in 2013, it identified Tampa as a potential beneficiary.
In theory, sending cargo to a port near its final destination would be cheaper than the current standard of sending it from the West Coast aboard trains and trucks.
But that's an open question, said Jim Kruse, director of Texas A&M University's Center for Ports and Waterways: The canal could charge too much for ships to pass through, or railroads could cut their rates to stay competitive.
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The long-delayed and much-hyped expansion is set to open by early summer, Panama Canal chief Jorge Quijano said Thursday in Tampa. Officials haven't set a date because work and tests are still under way.
"Once you set a date, you become hostage to it," Quijano told the Tampa Bay Times.
It has been nine years since industry officials first gathered in Tampa for the American Association of Port Authorities' canal-inspired Shifting International Trade Routes conference, which was in town again last week.
Analysts caution that the industry's long waiting game isn't over just yet. No one is quite sure how the expanded Panama Canal will impact shipping in the United States, and it will take years for the effects of the canal to be fully felt.
"There's not going to be a great, giant sucking sound away from Southern California," where most (container) goods in the U.S. come ashore, said Tim Feemster, managing principal at Foremost Quality Logistics, a consulting firm. "Nobody's going to turn a switch."
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At first, analysts say, the effects of the bigger Panama Canal will be subtle: Big ships that pass through the Suez Canal in Egypt to get from Asia to North America might start coming through Panama instead. Shipping lines might consolidate cargo onto fewer, larger vessels, but along similar routes.
But it will probably be at least a few years before the largest ships — the behemoths that have inspired expensive infrastructure projects along the East Coast — traverse that region. That's because the risk-averse shipping industry isn't likely to move quickly, Kruse said.
And with many ports still working to make way for mega-ships with deeper channels, bigger cranes and taller bridges, the shipping lines might not make their moves until the landscape comes into clearer focus, said Asaf Ashar, associate director of the University of New Orleans' National Ports and Waterways Institute.
"The shipping lines, like everybody else in the world, are watching to see," Ashar said. "I'm sure many of them say, 'Let's let the Panama Canal expand first and then we will see.' "
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Despite the uncertainty, the allure of snagging a bigger piece of millions of shipping containers that pass through the United States each year has led to something of a spending spree on the East Coast as ports hope redrawn trade routes funnel more traffic their way.
Florida has been no stranger to the building boom. Gov. Rick Scott has pledged $1 billion in state money on port infrastructure during his term; the Port of Miami has undertaken one of the nation's most ambitious efforts to lure mega-ships from the Panama Canal.
And although the canal isn't the only factor driving investment in Florida's ports, it's a big part of the state's effort to beef up its container shipping business, said Doug Wheeler, president of the Florida Ports Council. Fewer than half of the shipping containers that wind up in the state come through Florida ports, Wheeler said.
"We're not doing, 'If you build it, they will come' kind of stuff," Wheeler said. "What we do know is that if they're not prepared to capture the opportunity, it will literally — no pun intended — sail by us, and it'll go to another port."
Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.