You Paid For It: Port Tampa Bay can’t account for use of $22 million cranes

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Seven months after Port Tampa Bay (PTB) started using a pair of $22 million container shipping cranes imported from China, Port Tampa Bay managers can’t say how much they’ve been used or what taxpayers are getting for their investment.

That’s because no one at PTB tracks how often the 300-foot tall crane gantries are put to use, or what ships they service.

“We’re tracking the containers coming in, we’re not differentiating between the old cranes, the 47-year-old container cranes, versus the new cranes,” said the Port’s Principal Counsel Charles Klug. “They’re mixing the numbers right now.  I think in the future we’ll be possibly only using the larger cranes”

Three weeks after 8 On Your Side started asking questions, Klug concedes that no one takes note of when the giant gantries are used to move container cargo, instead of the three older cranes that have been the port’s container shipping workhorses for decades.

The State of Florida paid 50 percent of the cost of new cranes, Port Tampa Bay paid 25 percent and Ports America, the private vendor that off loads ships at PTB contributed the remaining 25 percent. In other words, You Paid about $16.5 million for state-of-the art shipping gantries that appear to stay idle most of the time.

So, if no one’s keeping track, how do taxpayers know they’re getting their money’s worth from the new cranes? “These new cranes are an investment in the future,” Klug said. “These are long term investments. We think these cranes could last us 40 years.

The 300-foot tall gantries arrived with much fanfare in April 2016 and became operational July 22, 2016. They are designed to handle the supersized Post-Panamax cargo ships that carry as many as 9,000 shipping containers in a single load.

But, according to information obtained from PTB Friday and confirmed by Klug Tuesday, not a single post-Panamax container ship of that size has entered the port to make use of those new cranes.

“Not yet,” said Klug. “It’s sort of a chicken and egg situation, with these cranes, we need to have the ability to have the cranes in place and market that and go back to the lines and say ‘we have these Post-Panamax cranes, we now have the ability to service these vessels.'”

According to public records obtained from PTB by 8 on Your Side more than two weeks after we first requested them, the largest ships handled by the towering gantries hold up to 2,800 shipping containers, less than a third of the size of the Post-Panamax ships they’re designed and built to handle. Those ships arrive about once a week, usually on Saturdays.

Smaller container cargo ships arrive more frequently, holding as few as 250 containers, but no one at PTB can say whether they are unloaded by the three smaller and older cranes, along with a larger, movable crane that have been operational at PTB for years, or the new, $22 million cranes.

The question of gantry breakdowns also remains fuzzy. Klug sent an email to 8 On Your Side Monday stating, “The new Post-Panamax cranes have not required any maintenance since they commenced operations last summer.” But, Klug later corrected himself and concedes the new gantries have, in fact, been out of service from time-to-time for short-term repairs involving such things as faulty switches.

The amount of downtime due to maintenance remains a mystery, but Klug promised Tuesday to deliver repair records in response to our renewed public records request. Klug insists that whatever the gantry operational problems have been so far, they are covered under a three year warranty, at no cost to PTB or the taxpayers who purchased them.

Although PTB cannot point to any specific new ships or customers so far, they claim that the port’s container business was up 13 percent in the final three months of 2016, a surge in trade they attribute to the new cranes.

Even if that’s true, PTB has a long way to go before competing on the same level in the container trade with other shipping destinations in Florida. Jacksonville recently purchased three new Post-Panamax cranes and is dredging its port to accommodate Post-Panamax ships that can’t enter Tampa Bay, because it’s too shallow for those supersized container ships.

Jacksonville and other ports in South Florida currently generate about a million shipping container moves a year compared to 50,000 last year for PTB. Business here will have to grow twenty fold before Port Tampa Bay catches up.

If that ever happens, the new Post-Panamax gantries at Port Tampa Bay may have to work nonstop–and so will the old ones that port managers insist cost $2 million a year to maintain and are nearing the end of their useful life.




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