By Raffique Shah
September 20, 2017
The suggestion I made last week to phase out the Port of Port of Spain (PPOS) as a cargo port and expand the Port of Point Lisas (PPL) to become the main such facility in the country, generated much interest and discussion. That, plus the fact that the Minister of Finance will unveil the fiscal 2018 Budget in a few weeks, prompted me to return to the issue of rationalisation of the nation’s ports, and in the context of diversification of the economy, to marine services as having immense potential as a key earner of foreign exchange.
I should first make it clear that much of what I wrote last week or write here, except opinions, is not original: I am not that bright. The idea of centralising cargo operations at PPL has been around since the 1990s when the newer port proved itself capable and reliable. And marine services as a prime option for an economy seeking to be less dependent on hydrocarbons, has been on the national agenda for much longer. In fact, successive governments’ policy documents Vision 2020 and Vision 2030 list marine services as high priority in the future economy.
On the port issue, a valid question is, can PPL cope with more than twice the volume of containerised and bulk cargo it currently handles? I say yes. Through land reclamation, its options for expansion, for adding berths, turning basins and operational and storage spaces, is almost limitless. Additional staff could come from displaced PPOS employees, or from unemployed persons who can be trained in the skills needed for such jobs.
Because PLIPDECO, owners of PPL, is a public-private company (51 percent government/49 percent private-institutional), Government will hardly need to invest additional capital in the port itself. However, it will need to upgrade Rivulet Road to four lanes, dual carriageways, with one overpass at the Brechin Castle roundabout, and possibly another at the Hochoy Highway. In fact, designs for these upgrades, which would enhance the entire Point Lisas Estate, were done maybe ten years ago by the National Energy Corporation.
The cost will hardly be more than $100 million, which would be a small price to pay for reducing or removing the $200-million-a-year PPOS Government subsidy.
Regarding marine services, it is tantamount to negligence on the part of every government since independence, and even more so the captains of industry (private sector), that Trinidad and Tobago has not exploited a bountiful gift of nature, the Gulf of Paria, which is the biggest “natural harbour” in the hemisphere. Its year-round calm waters make it perfect for facilities to service ocean-going vessels that require dry-docking for maintenance or repair.
We’ve had one such facility at Chaguaramas since at least the 1960s, which was purchased by CL Financial in 2006 (renamed CL Marine). It is miniscule by international standards, and I don’t know its status today, given the virtual disintegration of the CL Group.
What I know is that an engineer and entrepreneur named Etienne Mendez, who heads Trinidad Dry Dock Co Ltd (TDDC), has been knocking at governments’ doors since the Patrick Manning era, bearing the blueprint for the biggest dry dock facility in the Western Hemisphere. He is not seeking funding (it’s a US $1.5 billion project); he’s looking only for Government’s endorsement to establish a 57-hectare island 1.5 kilometres off Sea Lots.
Sullivan Island, as it will be named, will be home to “five graving docks (catering for very large vessels), eight sea side cradles for smaller vessels and large yachts and pleasure craft, and eight service jetties for dry boat services,” Mendez told Express back in 2011. TDDC’s business plan envisages a five-year construction timeline, annual revenues of “US$1.3 billion, with direct operating costs, overhead costs and debt service amounting to US$542 million.”
The company bases its viability on an estimated 15,000-plus cargo vessels that pass through the Panama Canal annually, the requirement that all ships must be dry-docked and certified every three years, and the fact that there are no such facilities elsewhere in the Hemisphere.
Now, I don’t believe Mendez is a madman: since he first proposed Sullivan Island back in 2004, Dubai constructed several such man-made islands (Palm Islands) linked to the mainland by a causeway, and entrepreneurs have built and sold or occupy/operate hotels and residential complexes on them.
Investors’, not taxpayers’, money will be at stake here. If it is partially successful and attracts only, say, US $200 million a year, that counts for something.
On another marine services note, hundreds, maybe thousands, of pleasure crafts have been ripped to shreds by Irma and other hurricanes in some Caribbean islands. Not meaning to capitalise on their misfortunes, but here’s an opportunity to promote Trinidad’s west coast as a safe haven for these crafts. In other words, establish more marinas…earn much-needed foreign exchange.
Look, I have no business acumen, so I am in no position to lecture anyone on where they should invest their money. But when I see opportunities lost because of political or entrepreneurial myopia, I cry for my country.