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Port problems deeper than sea bridge

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The focus of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Land and Physical Infrastructure, which holds its final day of public hearings today, has been on the procurement and maintenance of the ferries operating on the sea bridge. However, testimonies so far reveal a larger, disturbing picture of mismanagement and chronic dysfunction at the Port Authority of T&T (PATT) which is affecting much more than the Inter-Island Ferry Service.

Although the intent of the inquiry is to find out what went wrong with the sea bridge, a strong case is also being made for a deeper look at operations and management of the Port of Port-of-Spain. In a nutshell, the seabridge fiasco is the result of deeply entrenched practices at the port that have also caused problems in other areas of operation.

Strategically important as a gateway to the nation’s capital, the port has the advantage of being a natural harbour on Trinidad’s sheltered north western coast—a location from which it can easily service major sea lanes between the Americas, the Caribbean, as well as trading links between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the recently expanded Panama Canal.

For years now there has been talk about positioning T&T as a gateway to the Americas. However, for that to be realised the Port of Port-of-Spain should have been undergoing development and expansion to facilitate an expanded role in regional trade and transportation.

Sadly, that potential is far from being realised, if information being made public at the JSC hearings is anything to go by.

What seems to be emerging is a woeful tale of inadequate management, so it is no wonder that the facility continues to be afflicted with tariffs that are too low to support its services, accumulated debt and large numbers of disgruntled customers. It is also no wonder that to date T&T has not been able to take full advantage of new transshipment opportunities from the expansion of the Panama Canal.

The situation at the PATT should be of concern to all and warrants swift intervention and remediation since ridiculously high port costs are a major cause of high prices for goods and services in this country.

Based on what is being revealed at the JSC, it appears that little or nothing was done with a 2014 Port Rationalization Study which should have been the basis of policies and programmes for development of T&T’s maritime sector. Considering all the talk about economic diversification, it is surprising and disappointing that no real effort has been made to implement some of the recommendations of that study, which also looked at Point Lisas and other ports across the country.

That study found that one of the major impediments to growth and success for the Port-of-Spain Port is low berth productivity due to unavailability of enough cranes and low crane productivity. In general, shipping lines operating from the port complained about the low productivity which has been afflicting that facility for long time.

Another finding was that efforts at private sector participation in the Port had failed mainly due to labour objection and that union rules are a major impediment to higher operational performance and cost savings.

Among the recommendations is that the facility undergo major rehabilitation, including removal of non-essential facilities and activities to off-dock dry port, installation of modern equipment and dredging of the access channel.

The lack of progress on these issues is worrying given recent developments in the global shipping industry. As it now stands, the emergence of ultra large container ships, declining freight rates and other challenges could lead to a significant loss of business for the port if urgent action isn’t taken to fix all that ails the facility.

There is a major risk of services that call to T&T being replaced by others that can traverse the Panama Canal through Panama Atlantic hubs, along with other losses.

To survive and thrive, the PATT needs to be staffed with experienced and innovative managers and directors which, from all that has been said this week, is not currently the case.


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