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World's second-largest shipping line connects Port of Tampa to the globe

TAMPA — The Port of Tampa just went global.

Mediterranean Shipping Co., the second-largest shipping container line in the world, has linked Tampa to its planetwide shipping network, the Tampa Port Authority announced Wednesday.

The deal will give importers and exporters here and across the world the option of shipping their goods to and from the Port of Tampa. That means the Tampa Bay area could grab more of the wealth and jobs those goods generate, resources that now flow to larger, more competitive ports in Florida and the United States.

"MSC covers the entire world," said Ports America executive Doug Wray. "This effectively opens virtually every trade lane to Tampa."

Wray is a Tampa-based vice president at Ports America, the largest terminal and stevedore company in the United States. His company, which runs Tampa's shipping terminals, and the Tampa Port Authority have spent six years trying to bring MSC here. The Switzerland company joins Zim Integrated Shipping Services, a smaller Israeli container company operating in Tampa.

In the short-term, the deal will likely boost the Port of Tampa's nearly nonexistent cargo container sector.

But in the long-term it has the potential to transform completely the port — and Tampa Bay. It could mean new businesses, new infrastructure and new jobs.

Jim Kruse, the director for the Center for Ports and Waterways at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in Houston, thinks the Tampa Bay area could position itself to attract businesses it couldn't have before. Companies could build, relocate or expand their distribution or manufacturing centers here because now they'll have easy access to a global port.

"It's hard to get a distribution center set up in your area if you can't guarantee quick and efficient service to the world's markets," Kruse said. "This may go beyond just the immediate effect. It may spur the development of business you wouldn't otherwise get in that area."

But that's decades from now. More immediately, the deal will be felt by boosting the number of cargo containers that go through the Port of Tampa. It should also stem the number that are trucked right by Tampa to South Florida.

Tampa needs to bulk up on the large metal boxes that move consumer goods across the oceans because its usual staples — bulk cargoes such as chemicals and phosphates — are shrinking. Containers also make more money.

In 2011 the Port of Tampa handled just 40,000 TEUs — or 20-foot equivalent unit, a common (but inexact) reference for a 20-foot container box. But Miami handled more than 900,000 TEUs that year. Tampa is missing out on the 500,000 containers that move through Central Florida annually, according to Wade Elliott, the Tampa Port Authority's senior director of marketing.

"We're hungry to expand and develop our container business," Elliott said. "We know there's a sizable business in our own back yard that we could be handling, and MSC can help us serve that."

MSC started selling the Tampa route on Tuesday, Elliott said. Next week, the Tampa Port Authority's governing board will vote on a three-year incentive agreement that will give MSC discounts on the usual port fees. Those discounts will deepen as the volume of cargo containers rise. Ports America did not disclose the details of its deal with MSC.

The Port of Tampa already reaches the east coast of South America and the Mediterranean. But MSC will connect the port to the South American west coast, the Middle East and, through the Suez Canal, the Indian subcontinent.

Wray said MSC was attracted by Zim's success here and two key infrastructure improvements: the recently completed rail loop that allows containers to be unloaded directly from ships onto trains and the soon-to-be completed interstate on-ramp that will allow cargo trucks to bypass Ybor City.

"We're pretty confident, between the rail and MSC, we should see things start to take off," Wray said. "This could be the catalyst."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

World's second-largest shipping line connects Port of Tampa to the globe 01/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 1:32pm]
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