Chapter 3.2 – Terminal Concessions and Land Leases

Authors: Dr. Theo Notteboom and Dr. Athanasios Pallis

Most port terminals are leased to terminal operators through concessions involving a bidding process to capture the terminal asset.

1. Private Involvement in Port Investment and Operation

In many countries worldwide, governments and public port authorities have retreated from port operations. The core driver is the belief that enterprise-based port services and operations would allow for greater flexibility and efficiency in the market through more competition and a better response to customer demands. Ports, which have traditionally been run like a government department, are seeing private money to promote greater competition and higher productivity. Eventually, lower costs were passed on to importers and exporters. Often this involves the transfer of provision of services from public bodies to private enterprises. Ports have become a business attracting the attention of large investment groups and equity fund managers.

Ports are inclined to develop new governance structures, which should be tailored to the specific local conditions in terms of culture and commercial objectives, leading to several options. Four major types of combinations of port/terminal ownership and port/terminal operations can be distinguished:

  • Public ownership and public participation in operations.
  • Public ownership and private participation in port/terminal construction, operations, and management.
  • Public ownership and private participation in superstructure installation (e.g. cranes) and operations.
  • Private ownership and operations.

The use of the model of Public Ownership and Private Operations (POPO) is the most common and typically involves some form of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) between the public (in the form of a government agency) and the private sector in providing a specific public service. Such partnerships require that risks, responsibilities, and returns be shared between the public and private sectors.

The use of PPP arrangements is widespread in the seaport industry to structure the responsibilities of terminal operators and port authorities concerning the construction, financing, and operations of the terminal facility. Commonly used arrangements include:

  • Build-Lease-Operate (BLO). The government or port authority leases the construction and operation of the whole port or part of it to a private company through a long-term concession. The private company constructs facilities such as berths and terminals. In turn, the port authority controls the rights throughout the concession period and receives an annual lease payment.
  • Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT). The government or public authority grants a concession or a franchise to a private company to finance and build or modernize a specific port facility. The private company is entitled to operate the facilities and to obtain revenue from specified operations or the full port for a designated time period. The private sector takes all commercial risks during the concession. At the end of the concession period, the government retakes ownership of the improved assets. Arrangements between the government and the private operator are set out in a concession contract that may or may not include regulatory provisions.
  • Rehabilitate-Operate-Transfer (ROT). The government or public authority grants a concession to a private company to finance and rehabilitate or modernize a specific terminal or an entire port. This company is entitled to operate and obtain revenue from the rehabilitated port for a specific period. The private company takes all commercial risks, and at the end of the concession period, the government retakes ownership of the improved asset.
  • Build-Rehabilitate-Operate-Transfer (BROT). The government or public authority grants a concession to a private company to finance, build and rehabilitate or modernize a specific terminal or an entire port. The private partner will build, operate, and obtain revenue from the rehabilitated port for a specific period. The private company takes on all commercial risks, and at the end of the concession period, the government retakes ownership of the improved asset. BROT is a combination of the BOT and ROT mechanisms.
  • Build-Operate-Share-Transfer (BOST). BOST is similar to BOT when a government grants a concession or a franchise to a private company to finance and build or modernize a specific port/terminal for a designated time period. The revenue obtained from terminal operations is shared with a designated public authority throughout the concession period. The government/public authority should assure a specific quantity of throughput for revenue. The commercial risks are shared among the government and the concessionaire. At the end of the concession period, the government retakes ownership of the improved asset.

Critical success factors for a sound implementation of PPPs in the port context include the accuracy of the PPP contract, the ability to allocate and share the risk appropriately, the technical feasibility of the project, the commitment made by partners, the attractiveness of the financial package, a clear definition of responsibilities, the presence of a strong private consortium and a realistic cost/benefit assessment.

2. Terminal Concessions

A concession is a grant by a government or port authority to a (private) operator for providing specific port services, such as terminal operations or nautical services (e.g., pilotage and towage).

In a terminal concession setting, a concession agreement is signed between, on the one hand, a private terminal operator and, on the other hand, a landlord port authority or empowered government agency. Concessions can take the form of a long-term lease or an operating license. Under the long-term lease system, a private company is allowed to operate a specified terminal for a defined time period. The government or a public authority holds the property rights of the facilities throughout the concession period and receives lease payments on the assets. The concession/lease fees paid by the private terminal operator are used to upgrade and expand the facility.

The concessioning of land to private terminal operators is a cornerstone of the landlord port authority model. Under this model, the landlord port authority usually is a separate entity under public law established by specific legislation. It has the capacity to conclude contracts (including concession agreements), enforces standards, and make rules and regulations applicable within the port area. Private companies carry out port operations (especially cargo-handling). The landlord port is the dominant port model in large and medium-sized ports.

Concession policy has become a powerful governance tool to port managers in the terminal operating business:

  • Through concession policy, port authorities or government agencies can retain some control on the organization and structure of the supply side of the port market.
  • Through concession policy, port managers can encourage port service providers to optimize the use of scarce resources such as land.

3. The Terminal Awarding Procedure

The awarding practices in many ports around the world have undergone quite some changes in recent years. While there were often no formal conditions required, the granting nowadays typically consists of a thorough inquiry of the different candidates for obtaining a terminal. Terminals may be awarded by several methods, including:

  • Direct appointment.
  • Private negotiation from a qualified pool.
  • Competitive bidding process.

National and supranational legislation, port privatization schemes, and legal disputes concerning irregularities in concession policy have made competitive bidding the most common procedure used in concession granting. Potential candidates are invited by the managing body of the port, or the managing body of the port publishes an open call for tender. The call could involve a public tendering procedure or other types of tendering, such as an open assessment procedure with room for negotiations and the submission of improved proposals during the process. Any competitive bidding should comply with the principle of equality, which states that every candidate should be equally treated and compared. There should be no favoritism in awarding the concession or no substantial reduction of competition and the principle of transparency.

In the case of an open call for tender, the terminal typically is awarded based on the offers of the eligible candidates, followed by one or more negotiation rounds. In the remaining cases, the terminal is awarded based on the offers of the eligible candidates without any negotiations or the possibility for candidates to submit a revised proposal during the awarding process. Some ports use different types of tendering procedures depending on specific criteria. For example, a limited or ‘light’ version for smaller facilities and a full version for larger terminals.

In the cases where terminals are directly appointed, managing bodies of ports do so mainly for strategic reasons. They can include creating intra-port competition or securing further expansion possibilities for efficient incumbent firms. Also, a terminal project can represent a marginal extension of an existing facility, such as the extension of an existing container terminal with one berth.

A typical terminal awarding procedure consists of three phases:

  • Pre-bidding phase. The awarding authority (typically a port authority or any other managing body of the port) makes the necessary preparations for the awarding taking into account prevailing regulatory conditions. The awarding authority has to decide on key issues related to the awarding procedure and make this information available to interested candidates. In this phase, the rules of the game are defined.
  • Awarding phase, which includes a selection phase and, if considered necessary, a pre-qualification phase. Candidates are screened, bids are evaluated, and the most appropriate candidate is selected. The challenge for the awarding authority lies in making the right choice given the parameters set in the pre-bidding phase.
  • Post-bidding phase. A legally binding contractual agreement is signed with the selected candidate, with the performance of the operator monitored during the contract term. If necessary, corrective measures are taken, and disputes are settled.

Prequalification is often, but not always, a first step in the awarding phase and consists of the selection of qualified companies out of the pool of interested candidates. It is based on a set of conditions developed by the awarding authority before the start of the awarding phase. Companies that have met these conditions are then allowed to one or more selection rounds in which the terminal concession is awarded.

4. The Pre-bidding Phase

Key decisions during pre-bidding include what to award and under which conditions the awarding will take place. The following questions need to be addressed during this phase:

  • Should the commodity to be handled be specified, or should bidders have the freedom to identify what cargoes they wish to handle?
  • What plots should be concessioned: one large plot or a number of smaller ones?
  • What are the key conditions of the concession and how to determine these? (e.g. duration, fees, and fee structure; Performance targets, bonuses, and penalties; final asset compensation, right-to-end).
  • Which risk division between the port authority and terminal operator?
  • Which investment division between the port authority and terminal operator?
  • Which responsibility division (e.g. maintenance dredging)?

A. Object of the concession

Once the decision has been taken to concession the operation of a (future) terminal, the awarding authority will have to describe the object of the concession. The port site that will be given in concession should be carefully delimited to avoid any potential conflicts over land jurisdiction. Moreover, the technical and geological characteristics of the site and the physical, operative, commercial, juridical, and labor aspects of the proposed concession have to be analyzed and filed. Such information typically ends up in later documents related to the awarding procedure, such as public auctions, tender documents, or requests for proposals in a competitive bidding process.

The purpose is to avoid information asymmetry in the awarding process. If the port authority does not provide due diligence, candidates will have to verify the state of the premises and possibly perform surveys and field studies to prepare their bid. This incurs transaction costs and may reduce the number of bidders. In addition, any gaps left by the awarding authority during this stage provide the winner of the concession opportunities for maneuvering during the later stages and even after the finalization of the process.

B. Main use of the terminal

An awarding authority might want to decide on the main use of the terminal in the pre-bidding phase. Alternatively, the awarding authority might decide to invite bids for a certain plot rather than specifying how it should be used, as long as it abides by the functions allowed by the port authority. If the awarding authority clearly defines the use of the terminal (e.g. plot to be used for container handling only), then the port authority will, later on in the process, have an easier task in evaluating the technical and economic proposals of the candidates on an equal footing.

C. Splitting and phasing of the terminal site

The size of a terminal site to be concessioned is a complex issue as the footprint must be sufficient for expected activity levels. In the pre-bidding phase, the port authority will have to make key decisions concerning if the development footprint is to be split and phased. Under an assumption that a port authority has 200 hectares of port land available for container terminal development:

  • Splitting option. Is this site best concessioned as one terminal, or is the plot to be split into two or more sections to be concessioned separately? This option must take into consideration the expected market demand and minimal optimal terminal size.
  • Phasing. The concession process can be phased. A port authority could decide to award the first section of 100 ha in year 1, 50 ha in year 3, and the remaining 50 ha in year 5. This option must consider the expected growth in the demand and the financial and technical capabilities available for terminal construction.

While the strategic options on splitting and phasing seem straightforward, solutions are challenging to implement, given the far-reaching impact they may have on the competitive profile of the port. Two key challenges can be identified in this respect:

  • Manner used to phase sections of a terminal plot. A port authority could organize a separate competitive bidding procedure or auction process for each phase. Alternatively, a port authority might consider a second terminal phase as a mere extension of the initial terminal phase and decide to award the second phase to the incumbent terminal operator by direct appointment, thereby avoiding a competitive bidding process. If the second phase of the terminal represents a marginal extension of the first phase, then a competitive bidding process or auction for the second phase does not make sense, at least when the incumbent terminal operator shows interest in operating the second phase. In case the scale differences between the first terminal phase and subsequent terminal phases are small, then a direct appointment to an existing operator is a less obvious choice.
  • Dynamics in intra-port competition. If the port authority organizes a competitive bidding procedure for the new plot and makes the incumbent firm eligible to compete for the terminal concession, two outcomes are possible. First, the incumbent firm wins. The incumbent strengthens its intra-port monopoly position and can extract monopoly rents if there is insufficient competitive pressure from competing ports. Eventually, the result is high revenues for the port authority but high costs for port users. Simultaneously, the scale of the facilities is likely to generate economies of scale and scope, creating the potential for lowering the handling costs per unit for the operator. Second, a new entrant is granted the concession, thereby introducing intra-port competition. Given the scale differences between the existing and new facility, the entrant has a good starting position to outperform the incumbent firm.

The issues discussed above constitute the core of many legal disputes handled by competition authorities around the world. It inevitably raises further questions on the need and impact of intra-port competition and the Minimum Efficient Scale (MES) in terminal operations.

D. The division of risks and investments

The port authorities will have to decide on the division of risks and investments related to the object of the concession. The general principle is that risks should be allocated to the party that can best manage them. In the port industry, commercial risks can best be managed by private operators.

For port infrastructure, this issue is more complex. In some cases, all risks are transferred to the private sector, and the awarding authority grants a concession to build and operate a terminal. The concessionaire has to make all investments and consequently bears all the risks. This option is especially attractive when the terminal to be concessioned is not part of a larger port expansion project but will need to be built stand-alone. However, when a port authority develops a larger port expansion project with various sites to be concessioned, it is better placed to assume these risks.

The awarding of a concession needs to address risk and reward factors to avoid unrealistic terms that may result in institutional entry barriers and a limited number of bids, or no bids at all.

E. Duration of the concession period

The port authority will have to decide the duration, fees, and fee structure before starting the awarding process. In most cases, the term of the concession is determined by the port authority or government agency. In many parts of the world, legislators have developed rough guidelines on concession durations for safeguarding free and fair competition in the port sector. There are hardly any rules of thumb on the concession duration. For instance, attempts made by the European Commission to create relevant rules, but these rules have not met the agreement of all stakeholders. In general, the duration of the concession will vary with the amount of the initial investment required, the compliance with the development policy of the port and land lease, and other easement rights.

A port authority might opt for phased concession terms, with a typical base duration of 15 years and consecutive renewals every 5 years, which are based on defined criteria. The port authority will also have to develop its views on a possible prolongation of the concession beyond the official term before entering the granting procedure.

The duration of the agreement is of crucial importance to both terminal operators and port authorities. Long-term agreements allow private port operators to benefit from learning by doing processes and to achieve a reasonable return on investments (ROI). Port authorities try to find a balance between a reasonable payback period for the investments made by terminal operators on the one hand and a maximum entry to potential newcomers on the other. As long-term agreements act as entry barriers, intra-port competition will only occur among the existing local port operators.

F. Concession fees and fee structure

The port authority will also have to decide the fees and the fee structure it will use throughout the awarding procedure. On the one hand, port users demand a transparent, uniform, and stable fee system. Such stability of the fee structure is important given the investment decisions of the terminal operator. On the other hand, port authorities are tempted to apply the market mechanism in setting the fees for the use of valuable port land.

The pricing system deployed by the managing body of the port for the use of the port land tends to vary widely among ports:

  • The managing body of the port imposes a fixed rent per year on the terminal operator for the terminal surface in use (for example in Euro/m2/year).
  • A lump sum to be paid annually regardless of the financial results from the operating activity plus a variable payment (the bigger of the sums: percentage from the total cash flow or coefficient per ton).
  • A fixed rent per year on the terminal area plus a percentage of the revenue earned (royalty fee).
  • A fixed rent for the terminal surface in use adjusted for a bonus system, depending on an annual throughput in relation to the guaranteed volume.

G. Final asset compensation

Port authorities can follow different paths when dealing with the terminal superstructure at the end of the contract term. Although the decision on what to do with the superstructure is often made at the end of the concession term, it is useful for port authorities to develop views on this issue even as early as in the pre-bidding phase. Common approaches include the removal/destruction of the superstructure by the terminal operator at the end of the contract term or the transfer of the assets to the managing body of the port without any form of compensation. A port authority might opt for financial compensation of the terminal operator for the superstructure that was transferred at the end of the contract term.

5. The Pre-Qualification Phase

A port authority can decide to have a prequalification phase before entering the stage of competitive bidding or auctioning. The prequalification phase aims to reduce the number of potential candidates by developing criteria concerning company size, experience, and financial strength.

A. Dealing with incumbent terminal operators

An incumbent generally will have the edge over new entrants in additional bidding procedures. In the absence of competitors in a port, an incumbent firm that does not face tight price regulation, or any other barriers (regulatory or not), is likely to win a bidding procedure for an additional terminal. In that case, it would generate some market power that enables extracting economic rents.

Port authorities may decide that incumbent operators cannot hold more than one concession in the same port. Whether they can do so depends on the legal framework in place: the exclusion of potential candidates might be considered anti-competitive by competition authorities. There are also cases where regulation gives an advantage to local/domestic players vis-à-vis foreign candidates.

B. Experience and financial strength

The experience of the candidate can be demonstrated by the management of facilities for similar cargo in the same or other ports. Thus, the candidate has to credit his experience in the activities related to the project by giving proof of specific antecedents in the exploitation of terminals. Defining relevant experience can take different forms depending on the geographical scope followed by the port authority, ranging from experience in the local port up to global experience. The considered terminal types range from multipurpose terminals to specialized terminals such as containers. These requirements are often associated with a particular minimum handled throughput in these terminals, occasionally used as a means to minimize the number of bidders due to a (justified?) preference for global operators.

Experience may also be combined with the technical solvency of the bidder in the basic port handling services or the ability to fill capability gaps in logistics, broaden the geographical markets served, and expanding terminal networks. Creative port authorities can design the required experience so that certain terminal operators are well-positioned to enter the selection phase.

The bidding procedure typically contains thresholds on the financial strength of the bidders. For example, it can be stipulated that a certain percentage of the net worth of the bidder should at least equal the estimated project cost. Apart from the financial track record, financial solvency might also be associated with the capacity of the operator to maintain a specific level of reserves that match a considerable percentage of the total assets and fixed assets throughout the lifetime of the concession.

6. The Selection Phase

Awarding authorities can choose from a variety of different setups, but selection generally takes place based on negotiations or auction-alike structures:

  • Many competitive selection procedures in seaports de facto use auctions because the terminal is assigned to the highest bidder – not necessarily in monetary terms but also with the highest ‘score’ on a number of criteria.
  • Negotiations with the highest bidder(s) after the (de facto or formal) auction are not rare and might even result in the reversal of the initial decision.

The selection is based on a technical and financial proposal or a price bid. Every qualified bidder will present only one offer, without variants or alternatives. Based on the technical and financial proposal and or the price bid, a bidder among the previously qualified bidders is selected.

A. The technical and financial proposal

One way of deciding who will get the concession is to base the decision primarily on the requested technical and financial proposal. Although the required contents of such a technical proposal tend to differ significantly from case to case, it usually consists of the following: implementation details, financing details, a marketing plan, operational and management details, employment impact, an environment plan, and an organizational plan.

Terminal development will follow an implementation plan ordered by stages according to the expected growth of the traffic. The implementation plan is backed by the results of a market study. The calculations of handling capacity will have to demonstrate that the installations offered will have the necessary capacity to serve the projected throughput adequately. The timetable of investments will have to include the foreseen cost of works and equipment. Each bidder has to present a complete list of fixed or mobile equipment that is expected to operate on the terminal, with a definition of the type, capacity, specifications, life span, and the date entering operation. In case the bidding procedure concerns the development of a greenfield or brownfield terminal by the bidder, each bidder has to present studies and preliminary sketches of the works, estimations of the costs of building, and a plan of investments of all the works that the proposal contemplates.

The marketing plan typically includes a market study that defines the demand of services for the terminal and justifies the previsions about the magnitude and requirements of the installations, including projections of yearly throughput for a specified number of years. The candidate might have to indicate the expected prices and maximum charges for any of the services offered to the terminal users and operation costs (including labor, equipment, fuels, and other inputs and supplies), maintenance and supervision, and administration.

Each bidder typically has to present environmental and territorial studies on aspects such as the impact of the terminal operations on the environment and mobility and the alternatives to eliminate, reduce or mitigate selected adverse effects.

Further, each bidder typically has to quantify staff requirements for the concession and project its evolution according to the cargo projections.

In a well–prepared proposal, there should be a continuous chain of logic, which flows from the market demand and cargo projections through to the physical layout, equipment purchases, manning levels, and operating assumptions. Considering the final selection, it is quite common to rate various aspects of the technical and financial proposal and add up the results in a weighted or unweighted score, based on each of the evaluation criteria related to the elements in the proposal. The weights and passing criteria are included in the bidding documents, if applicable.

B. Price bid

An alternative way of awarding a concession consists of putting a strong focus on the price. The available alternatives range from a given rent but minimal charges to a maximum rent and freedom to the private operator to set charges. Given a set level of investment and quality requirements, the winner is either:

  1. The highest payer for the right to provide terminal services.
  2. The bidder who is offering the lowest price to be paid by the terminal users.

In the first option, the port authority or government agency aims at maximizing revenue. The payments are typically made annually. The second option focuses more on the interest of the port users and ensures price minimization rather than revenue maximization. The concession fee under the first option is seldom renegotiated. In contrast, the fee under the second option is often renegotiated so that the concessionaire ends up with a larger share of the rent created by its efficiency gains.

In some cases, particularly for new terminal developments in developing countries, bidders have to quote the percentage of their revenue passed on to the government. The competition is then based on bidding, and the priority will be given to the party that offers the highest percentage to the government share.

7. Post-Bidding Phase

A. The concession agreement

The post-bidding phase includes the drafting and signing of the concession agreement, the follow-up of the agreement, and the termination and renegotiation, if any, of the contract.

The design of the concession agreement or contract, starting with the rights and obligations of the concessionaire, is a key element in any concession. One of the main reasons behind specific contractual arrangements in a concession agreement relates to potential information asymmetries described in the principal/agent theory. A port authority (the principal) bases its decisions about granting a concession on the available information. Although the information about the candidate might be very elaborate, such as financial status, performance in other ports, or client base, the port authority has no guarantee that the agent will meet its objectives in terms of cargo generation. As such, concession agreements often take the form of performance-based contracts to create incentives for the agent (terminal operator) to act in the principal’s interest.

The specific design of the concession agreement, its regulatory regime, the tariff regime, and the way the concession is awarded reveal the priorities of port authorities and government agencies and, as such, play an important role in port governance.

Renegotiation, whether due to contract incompleteness or opportunism, can eliminate the benefits of a competitive allocation mechanism. Essentially, an auction winner will be the best negotiator, not necessarily the best infrastructure operator. Efforts should be made to restrict renegotiation to non-opportunistic situations, such as unexpected events outside the control of the parties.

A concession agreement typically contains provisions to protect the terminal operator and port authority against arbitrary and early cancellation. However, it can also include provisions that enable the port authority to (unilaterally) end the concession if the terminal operator does not meet certain preset performance indicators.

B. Throughput guarantees

The most common performance clauses in concession agreements relate to cargo throughput. The port authority or government agency can indicate upfront a minimum throughput to be guaranteed by the concessionaire, especially for existing berths or terminals. This should encourage the operator to market the port services, attract maritime trade and optimize terminal and land usage. In case the terminal operator does not meet the objectives as set in the concession agreement, a penalty will be paid to the port authority (e.g. a fixed amount per ton or TEU short) or, in the most extreme case, the concession will be rescinded.

In principle, throughput guarantees help secure a reasonable level of land productivity, reach high terminal utilization rates, and lower the entry barriers to newcomers. This is particularly the case if the port authority follows a retracting policy or reallocating certain parts of the terminal due to under-utilization. A port authority might also consider rewarding terminal operators who are performing above expectations.

C. Effectiveness of sanctions in concession agreements

Concession agreements can have a considerable influence on overall port performance. A poorly-designed lease contract can lead to situations where the port authority has no legal means to penalize inefficient companies or end the contract unilaterally. The resulting underutilization of valuable land and infrastructure undermines the growth potential of the port.

Whatever the explicit objectives of the concession may be, each lease contract should contain an explicit list of penalties that will be incurred in case the rules are infringed. With the emergence of international terminal operators, some shipping line branches, port authorities are confronted with influential and footloose players. Fierce competition and the fear of traffic losses might make port authorities less observant and strict concerning the enforcement of the concession agreement rules.

In a well-tailored concession contract, sanctions are such that the parties do not comply with rules only when non-compliance is optimal. Excessive penalties give the contract a rigidity that is inefficient, meaning that only credible penalties should be included in a concession agreement. This means penalties that the port authority will have an interest in implementing if a violation occurs. For instance, a penalty can be imposed on a terminal operator for not meeting a minimum throughput. Non-credible penalties are not effective because their presence in the concession agreement weakens its reliability and legal certainty. As terminal operators do not take them into account and as the port authority does not enforce violations, it acquires a reputation that induces the terminal operator to violate the rules or try to challenge any decision it does not like. In an environment with powerful and footloose market players, this represents a highly undesirable position for a port authority.

Threats of imposing severe penalties, such as contract termination, could be detrimental to the relationship between the port authority and terminal operator and may lack credibility. A way out could be to include a range of penalties in the concession agreement. For example, financial penalties can be incrementally imposed with the ultimate sanction of contract termination.

A port authority might also consider rewarding terminal operators that are performing above expectations. Penalties and bonuses should ideally reflect the economic costs and benefits of their behaviors prevent or promote. For example, penalties may be related to the economic loss caused by not reaching the throughput levels set out in the concession agreement. The economic loss includes terminal-related elements (terminal underutilization) and broader economic elements, such as missed added-value and employment.

Related Topics


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