Florida's inland port strategy could result in thousands of new jobs
By Lee Burlett
Florida's 15 deepwater seaports support more than half a million direct and indirect jobs and collectively they have an economic impact of $66 billion in the state. With the re-alignment of global trade routes as a result of an expanded Panama Canal, Florida's ports are positioning themselves to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity. The opening of the Panama Canal's larger locks in 2014 will offer new global opportunities for international trade growth through Florida's well-placed ports.
In 2010, U.S. ports typically showed a 60 percent import to 40 percent export ratio. Yet, in Florida, efforts to decrease trade deficits with other countries are starting to build momentum. Florida currently has one of the nation's best export-over-import surpluses. In 2010, Florida's exports represented 58 percent of the total import/export cargo. The state exported $73 billion in goods in 2010 compared to $53.2 billion in imports. That export-over-import surplus is the fourth-best in the nation.
According to flaports.org, "Florida faces a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our economy by becoming a global leader for trade, logistics and export-oriented manufacturing activities." Sounds pretty good, but to get there the state of Florida must make strategic capital investments to deepen harbors, build more berth, crane and terminal infrastructure and add more container handling capacity. The last part of that sentence – more handling capacity – is the challenge considering Florida’s landlocked port system.
To alleviate that, part of that positioning strategy is to build system wide, seamless intermodal facilities throughout the state to move goods more efficiently and cost effectively. This includes several inland ports that can act as centralized freight hubs. The inland ports can expand existing seaport capacity, increase reliability in the freight system and improve congestion management activities, all in an effort to create new market opportunities. And for Small Town Florida, the prospects are excellent because each of the inland ports will be located in rural markets with the potential for thousands of new jobs being created.
An inland port is essentially a distribution site to provide support for intermodal transfers between ship, rail and truck operations. The inland ports being discussed and developed in Florida are located in rural settings where land costs and land uses are less restrictive. The inland ports in Florida are being centrally located to key markets such as Jacksonville, Palm Beach and Miami, port locations in Florida that are over or near capacity.
One such inland port being considered for development would serve Port Citrus on Florida's western Gulf Coast. Rural counties like Citrus, Marion and Levy counties are looking to take advantage of the new logistics opportunities that will result if an inland port is built in Ocala, Fla.
In October, the city of Ocala began preliminary discussions with Citrus County officials to explore an inland port to be developed on Interstate 75. The city and county want the development to be a regional effort with rural Marion and Levy counties working in conjunction with Ocala and Citrus.
Port Citrus was recently named Florida's 15th port in the last Legislative session, making it eligible for future state funding. The port is located at the former Cross Florida Barge Canal, north of Crystal River on the Levy/Citrus county border. The port is not a deep water facility, but could be used to ship raw materials by barge.
The Cross Florida Barge Canal was a federal project that was started in 1942 in an effort to link the Gulf of Mexico with the St. Johns River, giving the state an inland waterway linking the Gulf with the Atlantic. The project was abandoned in 1971 after about a third of the canal was completed.
Port Citrus is on the M-10 Maritime Highway that begins in Brownsville, Tex. and ends at Port Manatee in South Tampa Bay. If developed, an inland port in Ocala could ship goods to and from the new seaport in a cost efficient manner. An ocean-going barge can ship a load equal to 600 tractor trailer loads.
In an article published by the Ocala Star-Banner in December, Citrus County Commissioner Joe Meek said, "We are very early on in the process of our port initiative. This will not happen overnight. We are laying the groundwork to have a, hopefully, positive economic future."