A Race to a Distant Planet

On December 12th The New York Times’ Kim Severson produced an article sporting this headline:

“A Race to Capture a Bounty From Shipping”

The sources providing material for this report, obviously, were folks who are afraid to present the truth to the public because they know that their livelihoods (their paychecks) are at risk. Here is the article Kim put together:

“SAVANNAH, GA – Port officials here are racing to dig six feet of mud from the bottom of the Savannah River by 2014. In the world of major waterway expansions, that is an impossibly tight timeline.

“Few can recall a civic project in Georgia that has had more unified support.

“Without the $ 625 million deepening project, a breed of huge ships loaded with foreign-made iPods, furniture and other goods that will soon be able to traverse a newly widened Panama Canal will head elsewhere.

Like Savannah, other East Coast ports from New York to Miami are scrambling like shoppers at a post-Thanksgiving door-buster sale, trying to become the go-to port once the canal is widened.

“‘Everyone’s lined up, and the door is about to open,’ said Bob Pertierra, vice president of supply chain development for the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

“But the battle is especially fierce here in the South, where several ports are competing to become the region’s top destination for the superships. They hope to cash in on the biggest shift in the freight business since the 1950s, when oceangoing ships began carrying goods in uniform metal containers.

“The Panama Canal, 48 miles of water connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is undergoing a $ 5.25 billion expansion that is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 15, 2014, 100 years to the day after it opened.

“In what has been considered a speed bump for major shipping companies, the canal is too small to accommodate a class of superships that came on the scene in the 1980s and went into heavy use a decade later when China became a powerful exporter.

“Some of the big ships can carry three times as many as the industry average. The expansion, though it still will not allow the canal to accommodate the largest of the ships, will enable products made in Asia to be sent directly to the east Coast instead of being unloaded on the West Coast and then sent east by train or truck.

“A result could be a shift in business worth billions of dollars to ports, and big savings for companies like Ikea and Home Depot, which are always on the hunt for more efficient ways to serve shoppers in the Eastern third of the United States, where a majority of the population lives.

“With so much on the line, the canal expansion has pitted city against city and is testing the mettle of lawmakers torn between their opposition to federal earmarks, which pay for the bulk of port projects, and the gold rush that is about to begin along their shorelines.

“‘If you can imagine the crowded three-or-four-lane highways you’re driving on suddenly getting expanded to 12 lanes, you can picture what’s about to happen,’ Mr. Pertierra said. ‘It’s a global shift.’

“To capture some of the new traffic, almost every large East Coast port and those along the Gulf of Mexico have projects underway. Some ports that are too small to handle the giant ships are improving railroads and truck routes, making them more efficient in anticipation of an overall increase in the number of containers coming to the East.

“Others want to dig deeper channels and become the leading port in their regions for companies operating the big vessels, including Savannah; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Miami.

“Those projects, however, rely on a long process that requires Congressional approval, studies by the Army Corps of Engineers and, finally, a lot of federal money that usually comes as budget add-ons, or earmarks.

“The fight over federal money has ports feuding like estranged brothers.

“In an interview in his well-appointed office overlooking the Savannah port, Curtis Foltz, the executive director of the Georgia Port Authority, sounded as if he were the coach of a championship team talking about an underdog when Charleston’s expansion plans come up.

“‘We’ve never looked at Charleston as a competitor,’ Mr. Foltz said. ‘All you have to do is look at the numbers. The stats speak for themselves.’ His port is the fourth-largest in the country; Charleston is the 12th, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

“Nikki Haley, the incoming governor of South Carolina, is also on the offensive. ‘You now have a governor who does not like to lose,’ she told a crowd at an annual dinner for the ports, which was held the same day last month that the Corps of Engineers announced the approval for the Savannah dredging. ‘Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don’t have the patience to let it happen anymore.’

“Bill Johnson, the Port of Miami director, needs a $ 75 million federal appropriation and has gone to Washington to push for it. Meanwhile, his counterparts in Jacksonville are making their own case for deeper water, saying their port is geographically better suited than Miami’s and is one of the few American ports that have seen consistent growth in container traffic.

“Containers have become the name of the game in shipping. Although cruise ship and exports and imports of cars, oil and bulk agricultural loads like cotton and fertilizer still make up a good portion of port traffic, most of the growth is in containers filled with products that Americans like to buy.

“The newest, biggest ships can carry the equivalent of as many as 15,000 containers that are twenty feet long. But they are also heavier, wider and require deeper water. In Savannah, for example, the water is only 42 feet deep. That is enough, with tidal variations, to handle ships loaded with 5,500 containers.

“The port at Norfolk, Va., is 50 feet deep, and is the only one on the East Coast that can handle the biggest, fully loaded container ships.

“The navigation channel that feeds the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine terminal in New Jersey is deep enough, but the Bayonne Bridge is not tall enough for the new container ships to pass under. As a result, officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are pondering options. They might raise the bridge by 64 feet. A study by the Corps of Engineers this fall estimated the cost at $ 1.3 billion.

“As Savannah port officials are learning, digging up six feet of mud is not easy or cheap. Environmentalists are concerned that dredging will cause historic Savannah buildings along the shore to tumble into the water, suck sand from the shores of Tybee Island and ruin freshwater marshes.

“The Corps of Engineers’ environmental impact document, issued in November after 14 years of study, suggested deepening but not widening the channel to protect the buildings along the shore and adding 3,000 acres of wildlife preservation land to help- offset the impact on freshwater marshes.

“Of course, no one really knows how much traffic will be diverted and whether the expected increase will make up for the costs of improving the ports.

“In Los Angeles, port officials dismiss any concerns. ‘The Port of Los Angeles is not expecting increased cargo diversion as a result of the Panama canal expansion.’ said Rachel Campbell, a spokeswoman.

“Some shipping companies and manufacturers have already shifted their supply routes from the West Coast to the East after labor problems and an influx of freight in 2004 that caused gridlock among ships in Los Angeles.

“Officials in Panama are expected to charge higher tolls for the canal to pay off the national loan that is financing the expansion. Those costs to shippers could offset potential savings in improved logistics.

“For companies looking to get their products from one place to another, it is simply a matter of speed and price, said Eric Joiner, vice president of AJC international, one of the world’s largest marketers of frozen and refrigerated food. [A matter of speed? Like slow-steaming?]

“‘What’s about to happen is what happened when airlines started flying the big Airbuses or the big, new Boeing jets,’ he said. ‘You have to have the runways to take care of it. This is like anything else. Either you can play in the game or you can’t.'” –

What hogwash – except for the line, “Of course, no one really knows how much traffic will be diverted and whether the expected increase will make up for the costs of improving ports.” In our April 16, 2008 commentary (Vol. XV, Art. 7) we dealt with this hoax. Here’s what we wrote:

“But some folks would prefer that U.S. taxpayers be kept in the dark about the severity of today’s weakened economy and how nationwide unemployment portends even darker times in the months and years ahead.

“The folks at the Port of Manatee chapter of the International Propeller Club come to mind. They just hosted a conference ‘on the impact of the expansion of the Panama Canal’, featuring, as a key presenter, Rodolfo Sabonge of the Panama Canal Authority. You remember him. He was earlier featured in our Vol. XIV, Art 17 commentary, and unless you’re from a distant planet this man’s agenda is transparent, to say the least.

“Those who attended the conference, however, weren’t from a distant planet. They came from more than a dozen Southeast port communities, and they came to ‘learn how the Panama Canal widening, expected to be completed by 2014, will enhance shipping trade to the region.’

“Well, shouldn’t we all just sit back and wait until the canal project is completed in 2014? Who needs these lectures from Senor Sabonge? What business is it of ours in the intervening years? Just what does he have in mind when he appears in this country as a ‘key presenter’? Or should we ask, just what do our port officials have in mind when they invite him to port gatherings?

“It’s all very simple. They intend to stick US with the tab. US … meaning the U.S. taxpayers. That’s sad. We were deeply disappointed to find that a highly respected consultant delivered a message at the conference and proceeded to spout the party line. In about seven years, he declared, the widened Panama Canal will allow megaships loaded with thousands of TEUs to pass unimpeded to U.S. ports, but those ports won’t be ready for them, he said, ‘unless drastic changes are made.’

“‘It is the best of times – cargo is up,’ the consultant said, citing a study that showed world container trade growing at about 9 percent annually … but passing over the fact that U.S. ports, on the contrary, are experiencing unanticipated downturns in cargo volumes with even worse times ahead.

“He insisted, nevertheless, that it will be imperative for ports to prepare for the influx of goods coming primarily from Asia … and through the widened Panama Canal, of course … the widening of the canal being one of the ‘drastic changes’ that must be made (and paid for) by U.S. taxpayers.

“‘Amen’, whispered Senor Sabonge.”

[Can’t you just see those “superships” delivering undemanded and unpaid-for goods to the millions of undemanding and unpaid jobless Americans? Impossible. Like we said – it’s hogwash and hoax.]