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Falling short on port development

Published: 
Thursday, April 19, 2018

Newly appointed Port Authority of T&T (PATT) chairman Lyle Alexander, in his interview with Business and Money last week, seemed very optimistic about development prospects for the Port of Port-of-Spain, even as he acknowledged the numerous challenges facing the facility.

He is right. There are, in fact, many opportunities for the PATT to pursue.

World container trade forecast to nearly double over the next decade largely due to increased trade with China and other parts of Asia and the Port of Port-of-Spain should be poised to take advantage. However, in its current state, even with its favourable geographic position in the southern Caribbean just off South America, it is lagging far behind other facilities in the region which are also competing for that increased maritime traffic.

One would have thought that with the maritime sector tagged as one of the non-energy industries expected to drive T&T’s future economic development, some advance preparation and investment would have taken place to position the country’s major port to benefit from the Panama Canal expansion. After all, that is the facility in the region that has the most significant effect on maritime traffic across vital international lanes linking the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

However, although the canal has doubled in capacity with a new lane of traffic that can accommodate larger New Panamax ships, the Port of Port-of-Spain cannot accommodate those vessels which are 1201 feet in length with cargo capacity of up to 13,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) and may not be able to do so in the forseeable future.

That isn’t the worst part. While T&T is lagging behind, there are other countries in the region—including Colombia, Jamaica and Cuba—already investing heavily in development and upgrade of their maritime infrastructure.

We should not be so far behind.

There is a Standing Committee for the Development of the Maritime Sector that should be laying down a framework for port and other maritime development.

Last time I heard about the work of that committee, it was being chaired by Franklin Khan, who then held the portfolio of Rural Development and Local Government, with representatives from the Ministries of Works and Transport, Trade, Planning and Development, Tourism, the Secretary for Agriculture, Marine and the Environment in the Tobago House of Assembly and other government officials.

Its mandate—very much in line with the Government’s often expressed aspirations of maritime industry development—included expansion of the transshipment industry, development of a special economic zone/maritime logistics and expansion of port operations. Hopefully, that work is still in progress, although one would have expected that by now there would have been clear signs of activities to expand, upgrade and position the port to become more competitive and bid for business that is currently going to other facilities.

But let’s not waste time speculating. I just want to say that this is a good time for an update on the work of the committee, if only to dispel any notions of inactivity.

If things seem to be at a lull in this corner of the Caribbean Basin where port development is concerned, that isn’t the case in other parts of the region. The backdrop in which the Port of Port-of-Spain now operates includes serious moves to position Jamaica as a major logistics hub in the area, although that country still faces some challenges in achieving that objective.

Elsewhere, Caucedo in the Dominican Republic is already an efficient and modern terminal with large volumes of domestic and transshipment cargo and has shown impressive growth in recent years, while Cartagena in Colombia has become more specialised, with a large share of transshipment cargo.

The big picture is that there is already plenty of port capacity for transshipment in the region, particularly among ports competing with T&T on the same feedering ranges.

Given what already exists, there will have to be accelerated development, with considerable investment needed to bring the port infrastructure to a level where it can be truly competitive and attract the levels of business essential for medium to long term viability.

So where does the Port of Port-of-Spain currently rank?

Not very high, from all appearances. While this facility, a natural harbour, is well positioned to service major sea lanes, its ageing infrastructure and limited capacity are significant setbacks.

Currently its services include berthing for international container vessels, breakbulk, roll-on/roll-off, dry and liquid/bulk cargo vessels, as well as towage services, container freight services and warehousing.

In the last three years, the port has suffered a decline in its cargo handling volumes, down from 85,892 TEU in 2014 to approximately 257,000 TEU in 2016.

Although there has been an improvement in efficiency, that has been overshadowed by problems with the Inter-Island Ferry Service—just one component of it operations—which have not dragged on for more than a year, exhausting precious time and resources.

Mr Alexander, a former military man with expertise in risk management, will have his hands full working with PATT management and trying to win the co-operation of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union (SWWTU), firstly to bring the Port of Port-of-Spain into the 21st century in terms of its infrastructure and operating systems.

There are also some other, critical objectives that need to be met sooner rather than later. Attracting future transshipment business requires significant improvements in the port’s capability, capacity, productivity and cost effectiveness.

Among the upgrades for which capital must be invested are modifying and extending berths, acquiring modern equipment and dredging the access channel to accommodate New Panamex ships.

The long-term aim is for a port with sufficient capacity to meet peak demand, competitive rates and tariffs and a reliable and trouble-free labour force.

These are characteristics of a successful modern port and this is where the Port of Port-of-Spain needs to be.

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