TAMPA — Two years after the debut of its two giant gantry cranes, Port Tampa Bay is seeing a 59 percent increase in its shipping container business, though maybe not for the reasons those cranes would suggest.
The port counted more than 62,200 containers, both full and empty, during the first three quarters of its 2018 fiscal year. That's up from about 39,200 for the same months in 2017 and puts the port on a pace to handle 87,000 containers over the course of the year. Port officials said this week that a 100,000-container year probably lies in the not-too-distant future.
The port has long desired to bolster container traffic, an under-performing sector in an operation known for its growing cruise and steady bulk cargo businesses.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the port board, welcomed the increase.
"I think we're finally inching our way up," she said.
But while 59 percent is a big number, "inching" might be the right word.
For some perspective, Port Tampa Bay is in a position to post big percentage gains partly because it starts from a relatively low number of containers compared to other ports.
In 2017, Port Tampa Bay ranked 43rd among ports in the region covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement for the number of shipping containers it handled, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.
Higher on the list were Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports like No. 4 Savannah (4 million containers last year), No. 9 Houston (2.5 million), No. 11 Charleston, S.C. (2.2 million), as well as Port Everglades, Jacksonville and Miami (with 1 million each); and New Orleans, Mobile, Palm Beach and Gulfport, which ranged from 532,000 containers down to 216,000 containers.
At Port Tampa Bay, vice president of marketing and business development Wade Elliott says a combination of factors appears to be fueling the increase:
• First, the Tampa Bay area is growing at a healthy pace, with a larger population that consumes more stuff. At the same time, two main global shipping companies that serve the port — Zim Integrated Shipping Services and Mediterranean Shipping Company, or MSC — are handling more containers themselves.
• Exports from Mexico to Florida that once arrived by truck or rail now increasingly come over water. Two Florida-based companies, Linea Peninsular and TransGulf, are at the center of this activity.
• The trucking industry is changing. Fuel costs have risen. The use of electronic logging devices prevents drivers from working more hours than regulations allow. Amazon and Walmart ship more and more. And there's a massive shortage of drivers.
In some circumstances, Elliott said, it's beginning to make more sense to ship a container directly to Tampa than to a bigger port, such as Savannah or Jacksonville, where it gets put on a truck to the bay area.
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In the longer term, the port expects its $24 million cranes, which are more than 300 feet tall and have a reach of 174 feet, to play a role in further growing the container business.
The port currently gets container ships able to carry 4,000 to 4,500 containers, port CEO Paul Anderson, who was brought to Tampa from Jacksonville in part to work on building the container business, told the agency's board. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, vessels with more than 10,000 containers can go through the new, larger locks.
The cranes put Tampa's port in a position to handle ships with 9,500 containers. (And, yes, Elliott said, container ships that big can fit under the Sunshine Skyway and would not be too big for the shipping channel.)
In the past several weeks, port officials went to New York and Baltimore to meet with global ocean carriers who, Anderson said, "are very close to making some key decisions."
"We feel very confident that our efforts over the past four or five years — getting the cranes to give us the ability to handle vessels that we did not have before — put us in a really good position," he said.
At the same time, he said the port also is looking to develop business from smaller vessels, such as the shippers who serve Mexico. They carry only a few hundred containers, but they come weekly, and port officials are seeing a diversification of their cargoes. Port officials have met with prospective shippers in Mexico City and are scheduled to welcome a delegation from Mexico in the next two weeks.
"We see this as a real strong growth opportunity," Anderson said.
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