Federal funding sought for short-sea shipping on Miami River
By Shearon Roberts
While government struggles to secure financing to bring the much-anticipated $1 billion Miami Tunnel on line, efforts to start up the less-costly alternative of short sea shipping along the Miami River are gaining traction.
The main push is to secure funding through Congress as part of its Energy Bill, which allows for funding of short sea shipping operations around the country. In Miami, that could divert Port of Miami truck traffic from downtown. Freight from the port would be placed on a barge, shipped up the Miami River and off-loaded in the industrial district.
"We have the ability to remove container trucks from the streets of downtown right now," said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, "instead of in whatever year the tunnel's construction is going to be completed."
The Metropolitan Planning Organization in partnership with city and county offices for the Florida Department of Transportation included the concept in its Miami River Corridor Multimodal Transportation plan developed over the past year and half. The planning organization hopes the county will include requests for federal funding through the Energy Bill for fiscal 2010, as appropriations request for fiscal 2008 to 2009 have already been set.
"The new emphasis on short sea shipping in the recent federal energy legislation provides an opportunity to significantly enhance the competitive position of the Port of the Miami River to service many shallow draft ports in the Caribbean," said Jim Murley, director for the Center of Urban and Environmental Solutions at Florida Atlantic University.
Brett Bibeau, managing director of the Miami River Commission, who addressed the business community about the concept at the Goals Conference of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce this past weekend, said in an interview following his remarks that no official cost estimates have been set for funding the project.
Given pre-existing county infrastructure and resources, Mr. Bibeau described the start-up costs as being low and benefits as being vital for all parties involved. It will be up to the county, he said, to decide whether to operate a site and equipment upriver or whether to work alongside private companies.
Support at the national level for short sea shipping is strong, with the Port of Richmond, VA, receiving funding in the past through the Federal Highway Program under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, said Susan Clark, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration's office of Ports and Domestic Shipping. It is difficult to assess estimates for start-up costs for short sea shipping as it depends on the size and scale of the operation, she said.
Across the country it costs less than 2% of the total freight costs nationwide and generates $10 billion in annual freight revenue from only 14% of the national cargo tonnage, according to the Maritime Administration. Based on current operations across the country, it accounts for $300 million in federal tax and $55 million in state taxes, according to studies from the agency.
"Miami-Dade County serves as a hemispheric trading hub for Central and South America," said FAU's Mr. Murley, who chairs the Urban Infill Working Group subcommittee for the Miami River Commission. "The continuing progress on dredging the river will ensure that planned investments by private maritime entities along the river will be successful."
The Miami River Maintenance Dredging and Environmental Cleanup project could wrap up in April 2009, once the county secures a final $10 million in appropriations next month from the state Legislature to dredge the river to 15 feet. This development positions the river well for short sea shipping, allowing a barge to transport 300 containers from the Port of Miami to a drop-off location up river, five miles from downtown. Even at current river depths, a barge can carry 150 containers.
Mr. Bibeau said a single truck can carry only one container and must navigate downtown congestion, wasting costly diesel fuel while only being paid per container transported. The process wouldn't be intrusive, he said, because the barge would operate overnight, removing 1,200 trucks from the street each day.
"If planned and coordinated carefully, the barges could work as a continuous operation with limited disruption to the bridge traffic patterns that folks worry about," Ms. Bohnsack said.
The county has a site upriver where a barge could be offloaded, giving trucks easy access to State Road 112 and the industrial district. That site is two blocks shy of Miami International Airport and the CSX rail line, where trucks could easily get cargo to destinations across the country or for transportation as air cargo, Mr. Bibeau said.
Short sea shipping can shrink downtown congestion while the tunnel is still in the works, according to supporters. Even when the tunnel finally opens, short sea shipping can serve in conjunction with goals of the tunnel, which would have limited lanes, compared to a barge that can carry multiple containers, they said.
"This method of travel would create savings in gasoline costs for truckers and environmental costs for our community. It would also create much needed jobs for our region," Ms. Bohnsack said. "What is needed is the opportunity to demonstrate the reality of this. Then the benefits will be clear to others."