The San Juan Star / July 21, 1997
By Larry Luxner
As this Caribbean island prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. troops during the 1898 Spanish-American War, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority has some big plans of its own.
An ambitious master plan commissioned by the authority and drawn up by VZM/TranSystems Corp. of Oakland, Calif., foresees the Port of San Juan becoming a major U.S. transshipment center in addition to its current role as the Caribbean's leading cargo and cruise-ship port.
Implementation of the plan is part of a strategy by Gov. Pedro Rosselló that includes a $1.2 billion waterfront redevelopment project known as "El Triangulo Dorado" (the Golden Triangle), the shifting of maritime activities from Isla Grande to Puerto Nuevo and the construction of a proposed San Juan Convention Center boasting 300,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space.
"Puerto Rico has emerged as the passenger and cargo bridge linking Latin America, the Caribbean and the mainland United States," says Ports Authority Executive Director Herman Sulsona. "With this ambitious capital improvement program, we will have the infrastructure we need to play our role well."
Sulsona, 56, has been in charge of the Ports Authority and its 1,600 employees since May 1994. Since then, he says, the agency has gone from "dire financial straits" to economic health, with $140 million in fiscal 1997 revenues.
"In three years, we've done a pretty good turnaround," he said during a lengthy interview at his Isla Grande office. "Puerto Rico's economy is growing, and the forecast indicates that we have to be prepared. This is a dynamic master plan that give us a road map to follow into the 21st century. The plan calls for $600 million in infrastructure investment between now and 2015, with the biggest chunk of that money for cargo and transshipment. The beauty of this plan is you can use berthing facilities either way as the need arises."
At the moment, the port's 482 acres of facilities include containerized/ro-ro cargo (326 acres); breakbulk cargo (51 acres); automobile terminals (32 acres); liquid bulk terminals (13 acres); dry bulk terminals (19 acres) and passenger/cruise facilities (41 acres).
"When the original master plan was done, we were competing to get the 2004 Olympics, and some land was going to be used as an Olympics Village," Sulsona explained. "Now that we know we're not getting the Olympics, we're asking the governor to issue an executive order that would revert the 160 acres to the Ports Authority."
The original plan also included an artificial island in the middle of San Juan Bay, an idea Sulsona says "has since been discarded for environmental reasons."
In fiscal 1996, the Port of San Juan handled 6,868 vessels and 64.9 million tons of cargo -- or 79% of all traffic in Puerto Rico (smaller ports include Guayanilla, Yabucoa, Guayama, Ponce and Mayaguez). That volume was up 7.6% from the 60.3 million tons of cargo that came through San Juan in fiscal 1995.
According to industry sources, Crowley American Transport Inc. has a 34% share of the all-important U.S.-Puerto Rico trade, followed by recently privatized Navieras de Puerto Rico Inc., with 29%; Sea-Land Service Corp., with 25%, and smaller companies such as Sea-Barge and Trailer Bridge with the remaining 12%.
"Obviously, this master plan is going to make a difference," says José Amadeo, Crowley's vice-president for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. "Right now, we are in two locations, which is ridiculous. The plan calls for allowing us enough land to centralize all our operations in Isla Grande. This in turn will give them an opporutnity to help other carriers operating under the same conditions to consolidate their operations. As we phase out our satellite terminal, we'll have no reason to be there."
Sulsona, who has also served as Puerto Rico's secretary of education, says the island is already a well-established cruise-ship destination, with 26 vessels calling San Juan their home port and 25 more making San Juan their favorite port of call.
During fiscal 1996, San Juan received 1,015,589 cruise-ship passengers and 725 ship visits, a 6.3% jump compared to the previous year.
Yet when Puerto Rico's cruise-ship piers were planned, "they did not foresee third and fourth-generation cruise ships, with 2,300 passengers apiece," he said, adding that "cargo facilities were not adequately maintained during the previous administration" of Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, which advocates retaining Puerto Rico's Commonwealth status.
Later this month, the Ports Authority will begin accepting RFPs for the design, development, construction, administration and financing of two brand-new cruise-ship terminals, 8 and 9; the deadline for submitting bids is Sept. 26. This year alone, 13 ships will be visiting the island for the first time, including the world's largest cruise ship, the 3,400-passenger Carnival Destiny, which is due to dock here on Nov. 24.
"Without leaving aside the cruise-ship facilities, we are focusing on cargo by building two new berths, N and O, in Puerto Nuevo, which were not there before," said the politician. "We've just negotiated with Intership to build N and O for about $25 million. These will be the first new cargo terminals at Puerto Nuevo in many years."
Sulsona says the project, which will increase cargo capacity by 12%, will be finished before year's end; dredging has already begun.
"This should have been done a long time ago, starting with the renovation of Puerto Nuevo," he said, adding that "because of their volume, Crowley Maritime Transport also has a facility at Puerto Nuevo. Crowley will consolidate facilities at a 16-acre site in Isla Grande by March or April 1998. In so doing, we'll be able to accommodate Sea-Land's requirements in Puerto Nuevo."
In addition to serving the crucial U.S.-Puerto Rico trade, Sulsona says he'd like to see San Juan become a transshipment center for cargo moving between North and South America. The island already has a geographic advantage for certain transshipment routes, while its proximity to the east coasts of the U.S. and South America are key factors.
At the moment, transshipment accounts for only 4% to 5% of San Juan's cargo traffic.
"Our biggest competitors are Rio Haina (Dominican Republic), Kingston (Jamaica) and the Bahamas, all of which are very aggressively seeking transshipment cargo," says Sulsona. "We feel we have a much better infrastructure than any of the above, not only as it relates to shipping but also better telephone, electricity and water service. We are under the U.S. flag, so in terms of security, we feel we have the edge. Where we are behind is in actual new space, which we are working on now. On the other hand, we're a much busier port. So we'll be increasing movement of cargo through San Juan in order to capture a greater percentage of that market."
Says Christopher Matson, project manager at VZM TranSystems, which drew up the original master plan for San Juan: "The reality is that transshipment will probably account for only 20% of the growth in cargo in Puerto Rico, unless a large portion is captured from another port. Transshipment is tied directly to local cargo. In other words, with transshipment larger ships will arrive, and will make more frequent calls. For that reason, service should be better and cheaper for local cargo."
Matson explains that the economic boom in Brazil -- from auto factories to coffee -- means transshipment opportunities for Puerto Rico, since the island sits astride the fastest-growing trade route in the Western Hemisphere: that between the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and the east coast of South America.
"A line-haul vessel could drop cargo (machine parts, vehicle components and garment sub-assemblies) in San Juan and be received by a state-owned vessel from either Brazil or Argentina, which would have preferential berthing when it arrives in Santos or Buenos Aires," he said. "Given that, it would have a very fast turnaround. The vessel coming north would be dropping northbound cargo (forest products, coffee, finished garments)."
"While Freeport is opening a big transshipment port, and there's talk about expanding Rio Haina and Kingston, none of those have any appreciable local cargo. Only San Juan has a strong domestic cargo market. That's what makes it such a good location for this kind of development," Matson added. "San Juan's other advantage is that it's right where this north-south route crosses the Panama Canal route to Europe."
Whether all this comes to pass is another story. Much will depend on politics, and on Sulsona's team at the Puerto Rico Ports Authority.
Warns Crowley's Amadeo: "We've told the authority over and over again that the transshipment business that was here on the island has been moving away because there are no facilities, and because of our inability to get our act together. The potential is there to lose more if we don't move faster."