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Just how big are Florida’s ports?
And how much can they help with the current supply chain backup.
Container ships wait outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in October.
Container ships wait outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in October.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 12, 2021
Updated Nov. 12, 2021

You’ve probably heard about the long delays in unloading container ships at major U.S. ports. The backups have affected the economy and could make it harder for holiday gifts to arrive on time.

Several of Florida’s ports — with a boost from Gov. Ron DeSantis — have offered to pick up some of the slack. After all, ports and many port-related businesses can make more money the more containers they handle. But could Florida’s ports make a significant dent in the backlog? Let’s look at the basic numbers.

Ports often measure container traffic in what are called TEUs, 20-foot equivalent units. One 20-foot metal container is one TEU; a 40-foot container is two TEUs. For perspective, one standard 20-foot container can hold 24,900 soup cans or about 48,000 bananas, according to Costamare Inc., which provides container ships for hire.

Measured by imports of TEUs, Florida boasts six of the country’s 30 busiest ports, more than any other state. California has five, Washington has three, Pennsylvania and Texas have two apiece and no other state has more than one in the top 30.

While Florida has the most ports, none of it ports boast as much container traffic as the big heavyweights like Los Angeles, Newark, Long Beach and Savannah.

In fact, just the container traffic imported through Los Angeles dwarfs the combined numbers at Florida’s six busiest ports.

Container traffic at the top 30 ports increased by about 1.6 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to Panjiva, a global trade data company based in New York City. Florida’s six largest container ports experienced a 9 percent drop over that same period, though Tampa was a bright spot, recording an impressive 22 percent increase in container imports.

Port Tampa Bay has worked hard in recent years to add more container business. None of the other top-30 ports can beat Tampa’s 20 percent annual growth rate over the last five years, based on the Panjiva report. The port’s container volume grew by another 29 percent in the 12 months ending in September, port spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason said in an email. The port has added more paved storage space and plans to add three new cranes for loading and unloading container ships.

But even with those impressive gains, the Los Angeles port handles more containers in a day on average than Port Tampa Bay handles in about two months. Another way to look at it: Tampa’s container traffic could grow at 20 percent every year for the next two decades and it would still fall short of Los Angeles’ current tally.

It’s unclear exactly how many containers are backed up at the nation’s ports. But let’s say 200,000 additional containers need unloading before Christmas, or about 6,500 more a day than were unloaded on an average day in 2020. To handle those extra containers, the nation’s five largest ports would have to increase their daily capacity by about 12 percent. Florida’s largest ports would need to boost their capacity by more than 130 percent. Which seems more doable? Math can be a stubborn thing.

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Massive container ships don’t turn on a dime, and nor do supply chains. There are reasons that massive ports are so massive, and one of those reasons is that they are often well-situated to getting containers to where they need to go at competitive prices. That won’t change overnight.

None of this is to say that Florida’s ports shouldn’t try to lure more of the world’s container traffic. A crisis can create the perfect opportunity for small competitors to convince shippers to give them a shot. Just don’t expect Florida’s ports to have a huge impact on alleviating the current clog of shipping containers.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.