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Prospect Of Base Closure Raises Possibility: Roosevelt Roads As Transshipment Port?


January 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The prospect of the closure of U.S. Naval Station Roosevelt Roads may very well change the debate about which is the optimal--and most economical--site for Puerto Rico’s Port of the Americas project.

By selecting Ponce as the site for the new transshipment port--discarding Guayanilla as a possible "secondary" location in the future--the current administration has settled for a less than ideal alternative, with very much limited scope and area (only about 1,000 acres), for what a true world-class transshipment port should be.

Meanwhile, with the Navy closing down its Vieques inner range by May this year, top Navy officials have privately said the subsequent closure of the Roosevelt Roads base (with more than 8,600 acres) is right around the corner, probably when Congress considers the next round of base closings in 2005.

As can be appreciated by an examination of its assets, such as its considerable existing infrastructure, had Roosevelt Roads been among the 15 locations considered in 1999 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as possible sites, it probably would have been selected as best location for the transshipment port, now Port of the Americas.

What are the main geographical and infrastructure requirements for a globally competitive transshipment port in Puerto Rico?

  • At least a 2,000-linear-foot-long continuous wharf with a depth of 45 feet to 48 feet, able to handle two large container vessels simultaneously
  • A working platform of approximately 230,000 square feet
  • Rail and operation facilities for four container gantries of 40 tons and 45 tons capacity
  • Approximately 60 acres of paved container-storage area and adequate access roads
  • Infrastructure, communications, technical, administration, customs, and other services
  • and Approximately 1,000 acres for value-added activities.
  • Naval Station Roosevelt Roads has many advantages over the 15 sites considered. Except for its current lack of a 2,000-foot-long continuous wharf with a depth of 45 feet to 48 feet (Pier 3 is 1,200 feet long with depths of 40 feet to 44 feet, though it could easily be deepened by dredging), Roosevelt Roads already has every other requirement for a world-class transshipment port, and then some.

    Roosevelt Roads was constructed around the perimeter of Ensenada Honda, a bay approximately one mile to 1.5 miles wide and two miles long. Ofstie Field, a naval air station on the base, is about a mile north of the bay and has an 11,000-foot-long runway.

    Ensenada Honda contains the harbor for Roosevelt Roads. According to information provided by the Navy to CARIBBEAN BUSINESS, Roosevelt Roads, as it is now, can accommodate up to 20 ships at a time.

    There are currently three Navy piers on the east side of the harbor, with alongside depths of 30 feet to 44 feet. The piers are constructed upon concrete pilings and have deck heights eight feet to 10 feet above mean sea level.

    Pier 1, the U.S. Navy fuel pier, is the northernmost pier in the harbor. It is 450 feet long with alongside depths of 32 feet to 36 feet. Pier 2, a submarine pier, is 400 feet long with alongside depths of 30 feet to 32 feet. Pier 3, a 1,200-foot-long pier for aircraft carriers, has alongside depths of about 40 feet on the north and 44 feet on the south side.

    The Bay of Puerca lies about a mile northeast of Ensenada Honda. This bay, also part of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station property, is about half a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, with depths of 37 feet or more. A 1,000-foot-long pier is at the head of the bay. A large but inactive graving dock (where ships’ hulls are cleaned) is inshore of the pier, to the south side.

    The channel into the Roosevelt Roads harbor is 1,000 feet wide, and a controlling depth of 40 feet is currently available in both the channel and the turning basin into which the channel leads. Partially encircling shore and reefs around the harbor restrict the deep-water entrance to a width of about a third of a mile.

    The approach to Ensenada Honda from the Atlantic Ocean is somewhat restricted by passage through shallow reef areas and narrow channels. However, deep-draft ships (tankers) travel via Virgin Passage to Roosevelt Roads.

    With regard to the transshipment port’s infrastructure requirements, Roosevelt Roads has no problems and many advantages. The Naval Station, the largest U.S. Naval Station in the world in land mass, occupies 8,612 acres. It has more than 1,300 buildings, an airport (Ofstie Field), oil & gasoline storage tanks, a hospital, a hotel, schools, and landfill and water treatment plants. It also has more than 100 miles of paved roads.

    Furthermore, given its current use as a naval base, the development of the facility as a commercial port probably wouldn’t entail environmental considerations.

    In short, it has an already developed infrastructure that would cost millions of dollars to develop in either Ponce or Guayanilla.

    Need for transshipment port

    Changes in the global maritime industry--namely the construction of ever-larger vessels (such as post-Panamax and super-Panamax) that transport cargo to large-depth ports for transshipment to smaller ports--prompted the race in Puerto Rico for the development of the project now called the Port of the Americas.

    The possibility of building the Port of the Americas in Puerto Rico grew from the island’s ideal position beside the Mona Passage. As a passage between Europe and Asia and between the east and west coasts of both North and South America, the Port of the Americas in Puerto Rico has been the object of debates for many years.

    Initially pursued by the private sector, the government eventually realized the economic potential of such a project. It is estimated the Port of the Americas’ steep $1 billion investment could inject $3.5 billion annually into the island’s gross domestic product within five years and $6 billion annually after 10 years. Transshipment activities, if the port is truly a megaport, are expected to create more than 20,000 direct and indirect jobs in related industries.

    According to information gathered by economists and experts in the maritime industry, there is a market of more than seven million 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) or containers crossing between South America and the U.S. each year. By capturing one-third of this market, Puerto Rico’s transshipment port could handle a potential two million TEUs of transshipment traffic, including nearly 500,000 TEUs of Puerto Rican foreign trade.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 1999 preliminary assessment of 15 possible sites for a transshipment port in Puerto Rico set off an infrastructure project of such magnitude that, even as it transcended a change in political administrations, has been an ongoing source of debate.

    The Corps considered engineering, economic, social, real estate, and environmental characteristics at each site. At the time, it appeared as if Guayanilla’s harbor was the most suitable site for the port. Factors cited included a good wave climate, ample existing port size, vast land availability, and no land excavation requirements.

    According to the study, little dredging and disposal would be required and there would be minimal maintenance dredging. It also indicated the area had moderate-to-good road infrastructure and no flooding areas. While the preliminary study suggested a landfill would have to be built in open water, at the time it didn’t appear to be a factor that would make the area environmentally sensitive. In addition, the land had already been environmentally impacted in the 1970s, as the site of the island’s petrochemical industry.

    In 2000, intensive lobbying from Ponce Mayor Rafael "Churumba" Cordero swayed the present administration to consider his city’s existing port as a secondary site for transshipment. Gov. Sila Calderon approved the alternative in 2001. Environmental concerns brought by the Corps about Guayanilla since then now indicate Ponce will be the primary transshipment port.

    The establishment in 2002 of the Port of the Americas Authority is intended to allow the government to act as landlord to the future transshipment port’s operator. While the government will own the lands and provide basic infrastructure facilities, the operator will be required to invest in buildings, equipment, and additional infrastructure.

    The Port of the Americas Authority will also handle the port’s value-added activities. The Puerto Rico Industrial Development Co. (Pridco) developed a master plan outlining the development of the ports’ approximately 1,000 acres of available land last year. It consists of business activities that would bring the most economic benefit to the project.

    Value-added activities identified in the master plan include manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, distribution, transportation, and other service-related industries. While the transshipment port itself will create between 500 and 1,000 direct jobs by the time it is completely developed, the bulk of the job creation (up to 20,000 new jobs) will come from these industries.

    Other support services will be promoted within the ports’ regions. Maritime industry services include ship handlers, stevedores, freight forwarders, tugboat operators, and customs brokers. Complementary services such as banking, housing, retail, recreational, and cultural activities will also be encouraged.

    More than a dozen companies and private-industry consortiums requested Port of the Americas’ Request for Qualifications (RFQ) packages, published July 1, 2002 by the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Financing Authority, which is overseeing the project. To date, two groups have submitted RFQs: the Port of Singapore and Mainport. The latter is a local consortium, headed by Dutch Honorary Consul Frank F. Haacke, which includes the Port of Rotterdam, several Dutch banks, and international carrier Maersk.

    This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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