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Port of Mobile taps partners to develop $60M auto export facility

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The Port of Mobile is poised to become a major hub of auto export activity, with a new facility that will allow vehicles to be driven directly onto cargo ships bound for markets around the world.

On Tuesday, representatives of the Alabama State Port Authority and AutoMobile International Terminal, a joint venture of Terminal Zárate S.A. and SAAM Puertos S.A., signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop and operate a vehicle processing roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) facility at the Port of Mobile.

The signing took place in Buenos Aires, the headquarters of Terminal Zárate S.A. and also the site of a trade mission involving Alabama business leaders. The state delegation is visiting Argentina and Ecuador this week to find new markets for their products and services.

The agreement is a giant step forward in supporting automotive logistics in the Americas and abroad, according to James K. Lyons, director and CEO of the Port Authority.

Alabama auto export facility
Jimmy Lyons, director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, signs a deal with South American partners to develop a $60 million auto export facility. (Image: Gaston Colla)

“This agreement represents a key step in diversifying the Port Authority’s business while providing a strategic asset to regional automotive shippers,” Lyons said.


Automobiles have long been Alabama’s top export, topping $7.75 billion last year alone. State-made models are currently loaded onto ships at ports in other states, so the new RO/RO facility at the Port of Mobile will provide a more convenient option for state automakers.

“Alabama is the No. 3 auto exporter among U.S. states, with shipments to 88 countries last year,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“This new facility is an important piece of infrastructure that will help our automakers maintain their competitive edge as they continue to grow.”

Construction on the automotive RO/RO terminal is scheduled to start by the end of this year, with completion expected by the end of 2019.

The new terminal would convert approximately 57 acres of a former bulk material handling facility into a state-of-the-art automotive processing and logistics terminal. The 40-foot ship draft facility is served by five Class I railroads serving all of North America and immediate, unencumbered access to two interstate systems (I-65 and I-10).

Alabama auto export facility
Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield chats with shipping officials after the Port of Mobile signed a deal with South American partners to develop an auto export facility. (Image: Gaston Colla)

The overall project represents a total investment of approximately $60 million. Proceeds from the Port Authority’s recently-awarded $12.7 million Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant and the $28.8 million grant from the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council as authorized under the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011 would contribute toward the cost of the project.


In late 2016, the Port Authority initiated a Request for Proposal process to identify a potential partner in the construction of the facility to meet the region’s growing demand for finished automobile import/export facilities in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

The Authority selected the partnership between Terminal Zárate S.A. and SAAM Puertos S.A. and began concession agreement discussions for the construction and operation of the new facility.

Terminal Zárate S.A. specializes in port services; cars, containers and project cargo handling operations; storage and logistics services; warehousing; equipment rental and other activities providing value to client logistic chains, economic sectors and overseas trade.

Alabama auto export facility
Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, center, joins the group that signed a deal to develop an auto export facility at the Port of Mobile. (Image: Gaston Colla)

It is among the largest RO/RO terminals in the Americas with a 9 million vehicle throughput to date.

“This project is a significant component of our growth strategy and given our strong experience as a RO/RO terminal we are convinced we will develop AutoMobile International Terminal into a world class RO/RO processing and handling facility,” said Robert Murchison, president of Terminal Zárate S.A.

The other partner in the joint venture, SAAM Puertos S.A., is a subsidiary of Sociedad Matriz SAAM S.A., a Chilean multinational company that provides foreign trade services by means of port terminal operations, towage and logistics.

With a network of 11 ports in six countries, SAAM Puertos S.A. is one of the major port operators in South America and partners with the world’s leading shipping companies.

“We look forward to work together with Terminal Zárate and the Alabama State Port Authority and bring all our knowledge and experience to the service of the terminal, and consolidate our position in America,” said Yurik Díaz, manager of SAAM Puertos S.A.


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