MIAMI (Reuters) - The long-awaited dredge of Miami's port will begin this week as it and other cities up and down the east coast scramble to prepare for the massive ships that will pass through the Panama Canal when expansion work there is completed in 2015.
"The investment in the deep dredge will pay dividends in years to come," Port Director Bill Johnson said in a news release on Thursday announcing the commencement of the 18-month project, "making Florida an even more powerful player in the global marketplace."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is managing the $220 million dredge, which will deepen the harbor's depth to 50 feet, allowing it handle the larger "Post-Panamax" ships that can carry two or three times the load of standard freighters.
Miami officials hope the port's short distance from the canal, as well as $2 billion of planned infrastructure upgrades, including cranes to unload the ships and a billion dollar tunnel connecting the port to major highways, will make the city a more attractive choice for global shippers looking to distribute goods to the U.S. market.
The port is also one of the nation's largest cruise terminals, servicing nearly four million passengers annually.
Vice President Joe Biden toured the Panama Canal, still in the midst of a $5.2 billion expansion, on Tuesday, stressing its importance for global commerce.
"Two-thirds of everything that passes through the Panama Canal is either coming from or going to the United States of America," Biden said during a news conference. "When the Canal doubles its capacity, the United States has a potential to expand exports at a considerably lower cost and considerably higher volume."
Signifying the competition to be the destination of choice for all that added cargo Biden was accompanied by mayors from Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Miami is the only port south of Norfolk, Virginia, with congressional authorization to dredge to 50 feet. Other cities such as Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans are rushing to get billions of dollars of projects funded and underway in time for the opening.
Overall, U.S. seaports that together handle 95 percent of America's overseas trade volume are plowing about $46 billion into capital projects between 2012 and 2016, a level which dwarfs the $501 million annual average between 1946 and 2001, according to Wells Fargo Securities analyst Randy Gerardes.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently completed a study showing Savannah's $652 million dredge is viable and is also studying the harbor at Charleston.
The deep dredge of New York Harbor is slated to wrap by 2014 as the New York/New Jersey Port Authority set aside $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge to 64 feet so the large vessels can pass underneath. The Port of Baltimore recently completed work on one berth that can accommodate the larger ships.
Port Everglades, 30 minutes drive north of Miami, is also seeking permission to dredge its harbor to 50 feet.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Editing by David Adams and Bob Burgdorfer)