Infrastructure Needs: Sea and Inland Ports

Poised for a wave of potential new activity, strategically located inland ports might soon be finding their ships coming in.

For inland ports, the best is yet to come.

While Florida’s 15 ports pump nearly $100 billion into the state’s economy, according to the Florida Ports Council, an effective inland port system is also vital—particularly in the wake of the Panama Canal expansion. (See cover story, Page 26.)

Nationwide, inland ports—or Intermodal Logistics Centers—are hubs designed to move international shipments more effectively between maritime ports and locations throughout the U.S. interior. Connected by dedicated rail lines to one or more seaports, they’ve traditionally been more of a prime player in the movement of imports. That’s now changing. Cost-effective intermodal access is driving demand in exporting. Likewise, growth in global containerized shipping has prompted the use of import containers arriving at inland ports to export goods back overseas.

“You have to have the land-side operations to off-load the vessel,” says Doug Wheeler, president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council. “You have to put the cargo somewhere, put it on a train or truck and take it to a distribution center, and then put it on the road.”

And their importance to Florida’s infrastructure is rapidly increasing. With the state Chamber of Commerce touting exports as a way to diversify the state’s economy, inland activity has emerged as a key factor. Last October, the Chamber released its Trade and Logistics 2.0 report, which noted that the goal in 2010 of doubling state exports in five years is unlikely to be met, with the current trend line of $70 billion by 2015 far short of the $110 billion goal.

The report targets boosting international trade, improving Florida’s manufacturing sector to increase its exports and increasing the multiplier effect from global trade. To achieve that, “Florida must invest more dollars in infrastructure, reduce taxes and regulatory burdens on manufacturers and the ‘logistics’ industry—companies involved in making the transfer of goods more efficient—and increase investments in education.”

The promise of inland ports sits squarely in the middle of that equation.

Consider that Port of Houston, the second-largest port in the country (as measured by tonnage and according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) is 50 miles inland.

The ambitious Florida Inland Port in St. Lucie County seeks to swim in those waters. Under development since 2012, the Florida Inland Port totals more than 4,000 acres of rail-oriented, industrial land. The project will serve as Florida’s first dedicated inland port and become an “integrated logistics center,” emphasizing multimodal (rail and highway) transportation around which clusters of related businesses, including warehousing, distribution assembly and manufacturing, can occur. Eleven of Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 95 interchanges are within 15 miles of the port.

There is ample state momentum to take such efforts from the drawing board to completion, cites Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation. “If a prospective company says they want an inland port at this location but there are some infrastructure gaps that need to be addressed, we have told our folks if that is the case, get them to enter into an agreement with you to say they will come and we will invest in those infrastructure gaps,” he says.

To the north in Ocala, there’s talk of entering the fray. The city council has commissioned a $250,000  study to determine feasibility of becoming an Intermodal Logistics Center. Already, there are agreements with the ports in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville regarding the potential shipment of goods through Ocala’s future logistics and distribution network. Ocala boasts the prerequisites: central proximity to many Florida markets; an expansive mix of transportation options (rail, highway and air); and ready industrial sites close to the transportation infrastructure.

A big bonus is job creation. Products and parts will arrive via rail and truck sorted for regional distribution or perhaps assembled and sent to retailers. That means employment in both distribution and manufacturing could deepen and widen right along with events like the Panama Canal expansion.

For such locations, if their ship hasn’t come in, it’s on the way.

“It’s a lot of very complicated, but yet concerted effort both on the water side and the land side to really put Florida in the best position to capitalize on the potential market opportunities these changes are presenting to come to Florida,” concludes Wheeler.