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Punta Colonet update

Mexico Yanks a Roadblock to Developing Port-Rail Plan
Diane Lindquist - San Diego Union-Tribunego to original

Punta Colonet is likely to be transformed over the next decade into a megaport that will help to handle the increasing amount of cargo coming from eastern Asia. (Charlie Neuman/Union-Tribune)
Mexico has canceled the disputed mineral concession at Punta Colonet that has held up development of a massive port-rail project geared to create a trade route from Asia into the American heartland through Baja California.

As a result, the Mexican government is expected to move forward this year with its bidding process to attract private enterprises to build the port and rail line.

The winner will be named about the middle of next year, said the federal official in charge of the project, who revealed information about the long-delayed auction.

“The story hasn't changed,” Communications and Transportation Undersecretary Manuel Rodríguez Arregui said yesterday. “We're going ahead with the project.”

One of the mineral group's partners said, however, that the legal process under which the concession was canceled was improper and that he plans to take action in federal court to preserve the group's mineral rights.

“We're going to start another legal process that is going to take several years,” said Gabriel Chávez, who has headed the mineral group, called Grupo Minero Lobos.

His authority to act for the enterprise is uncertain because the group's two other partners have split with Chávez, supposedly taking the power to act on behalf of the company with them. Neither of those individuals, both Baja California businessmen, could be reached for comment yesterday.

Chávez admitted to having “a difference of opinion between the partners,” but he said the mineral concession was granted to the Grupo Lobos corporation, which he still runs. The Colonet port-rail project, which would be centered at an uninhabited bay 150 miles south of San Diego, is among numerous efforts to increase the ability of the West Coast to receive a growing amount of containerized-cargo shipments from Asia, especially China.

Expansions and improvements are planned or under way at ports from Prince Rupert in Canada to Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, including at Long Beach and Los Angeles, to relieve congestion that is expected to worsen as trans-Pacific cargo shipments grow by about 15 percent annually. A significant widening of the Panama Canal also has begun in order to facilitate passage of a new generation of megaships from the Pacific to the eastern United States.

Colonet is the only new megaport that is envisioned.

Mexican officials say the project will include terminal operations that will receive containerized-cargo shipments and a new rail line to carry the containers to connecting lines at or near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Before Mexico could offer the project to private developers, it was stymied by Grupo Lobos' concession – granted in 2005 – to explore for minerals in the seabed where the port is to be located.

Attempts for more than a year to resolve the dispute had stalled after Grupo Lobos demanded that Seattle-based SSA Marine gain the exclusive authority to develop and operate at least one of the terminals.

Then, earlier this year, the government took legal action to cancel the Lobos concession because, it alleged, the mineral group had failed to move forward on the mining project.

The legal process ran its course and the concession was canceled last week, according to an e-mail from Montserrat Peréz Manauta, advisory coordinator of the Secretariat of the Economy, which originally granted the mineral concession.

The Lobos partnership had 60 days to respond to the cancellation notice, he said in the message, but failed to do so.

“And because of this, the group was formally notified last week of the cancellation of mineral concession 'Lobo 32,' ” he said.

Yesterday, Chávez denied failing to respond to the legal action taken by the government.

“We did respond in time, but they didn't want to acknowledge my signature. . . . We're going to oppose this action. It's completely illegal. Instead of speeding things up, we're getting into more processes,” he said of the legal action he plans to initiate. Despite the delay and continuing dispute, transportation undersecretary Rodríguez said numerous private enterprises are eager to enter the bidding to develop the port and railroad.

“We have very large potential bidders lined up, and I can tell you they are very large bidders,” Rodríguez said.

The concession to develop and operate the port facilities and the railroad will be granted to the same consortium, or group, of partners, Rodríguez said. The partners need not necessarily include a Mexican company. “We will award it to the one that brings the biggest project (in terms of processing the largest amount of TEUs – the standard measure of containerized cargo)”, he said.

That consortium will develop the port and rail line and lease terminals to other operators.

“The winner will play the role of developer, and many of the companies that I've spoken to, that's their plan,” Rodríguez said.

Diane Lindquist: (619) 293-1812; diane.lindquist@uniontrib.com
Published Friday, August 17, 2007 7:51 AM by Laura Tierney

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