Port Canaveral CEO looks to build cargo hub with 55-foot-deep harbor

By: | at 10:00 AM | Channel(s): People  Industry Profiles  Interviews  Ports & Terminals  

Port Canaveral CEO John E. Walsh points to area where he hopes to develop container terminal facilities along a 55-foot-deep harbor. (Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)
Port Canaveral CEO John E. Walsh points to area where he hopes to develop container terminal facilities along a 55-foot-deep harbor.
(Photo by Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT)

John Walsh, chief executive officer of Port Canaveral, has a new dictum for the port on Central Florida’s Atlantic Coast: “55 or bust.”
Whether his vision of Port Canaveral becoming a major transshipment hub with the deepest harbor south of Virginia will come to fruition remains to be seen, but Walsh is convinced the plan is affordably doable.

In an exclusive interview with the American Journal of Transportation during the American Association of Port Authorities convention hosted in mid-October by Port Canaveral, Walsh shared his plan to, by 2020 at the latest, have a 55-foot-deep channel and a commensurate automated container terminal.

It’s a plan Walsh said he’s been formulating since coming to Port Canaveral from private-sector real estate development in February 2011, initially as deputy executive director of infrastructure, then assuming the CEO reins in June of this year.

“Why not here?” was the question that kept running through his mind, Walsh said.

Walsh pointed out that the port has plenty of available land, including 250 acres of presently submerged port real estate that could be filled with dredged material, plus the possibility of developing some of 10,000 acres of Kennedy Space Center land on the other side of the Banana River, and the port has a short channel, of only 2 miles from buoy to berth.

“We’re blessed by geography and geology,” Walsh added, citing the location of the port at the middle of the Atlantic Coast of a state that – not to mention nearly 100 million tourists a year – is soon to reach a population of 20 million, eclipsing New York as the nation’s second-most populous. “We think this port is central. We can be in every major market in Florida in under a half-day truck ride.”

As far as geology is concerned, the channel bottom is soft clay and sand, making it easier and less expensive to dredge than harder bottoms, plus there are no coral reefs to present environmental concerns that would add lots of time and money to dredging processes.

The cost of reaching 55-foot depth will be $115 million, according to Walsh, who added, “It is so affordable, it is foolish not to do it.”

Dredging is scheduled to begin this month, toward November 2014 completion, to take the port channel to 46 feet from 44 feet, and a study has been initiated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take the depth to 50 feet and, in a second phase, 55 feet. While federal authorization would be required, the funding would come locally, Walsh said.

The plan calls for Port Canaveral to, within five years, have a port-owned, port-run, highly automated container terminal capable of initially handling 500,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units of cargo annually, offering what Walsh described as “dependable, good quality, efficient service.”

Port Canaveral already has solid highway links, with Interstate 95 fewer than 5 highway miles away and Orlando 50 miles west along a major toll road, and Walsh sees rail connections becoming enhanced. A connection to Florida East Coast Railway tracks is 10 miles away, on NASA property, while a high-speed rail project bodes to bring freight-capable CSX Transportation tracks to within 3 miles of the port.

“Why do transshipment offshore?” Walsh asked rhetorically. “What we’re doing is the right thing for Florida and the United States.”

Citing the fact that Port Canaveral already has 500,000 square feet of cooler space, Walsh commented, “We think it’s ridiculous that fruit and other produce comes into Wilmington and Philadelphia and is trucked all the way down to Florida from there. We can greatly reduce drayage costs.”

Walsh couldn’t be promoting his vision at a better time for the Space Coast, which has seen the loss of thousands of jobs in both public and private sectors with the discontinuation of the U.S. space shuttle program. He said he believes investments being made at Port Canaveral – to the tune of $579 million over five years – will result in some 350 construction jobs plus about 1,500 family-wage permanent jobs.

Port Canaveral’s latest funding boost, of $9.7 million in state money for container yard facilities, was among $35 million in intended Florida seaport allocations announced Oct. 16 by Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the AAPA convention.

“We’re just this sleepy little fish and oil and cruise port, but we’re waking up,” Walsh said. “We’re not bound to the past.

“If we build it, they will come.”

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American Journal of Transportation

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For more than a quarter of a century, Paul Scott Abbott has been writing and shooting images for the American Journal of Transportation, applying four decades of experience as an award-winning journalist. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, with a master’s magna cum laude from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Abbott has served as president of chapters of the Propeller Club of the United States, Florida Public Relations Association and Society of Professional Journalists. Abbott honed his skills on several daily newspapers, including [em]The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Richmond (Va.) News Leader, Albuquerque Journal and (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel, and was editor and publisher of The County Line, a weekly newspaper he founded in suburban Richmond, Va.[/em] A native Chicagoan, he is a member of American Mensa and an ever-optimistic fan of the Chicago Cubs.