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Article by: David Bauerlein
A fast-and-furious month for lining up money to start deepening Jacksonville’s ship channel resulted Monday in the port authority board voting to move forward with the first phase of the dredging, a decision cheered by supporters who broke into applause in JaxPort’s boardroom.
JaxPort board members engaged in no discussion before unanimously voting to proceed with the first section of dredging, which will cost about $45 million and is just a portion of the $484 million cost to deepen the ship channel for massive cargo container ships from Asia.
The St. Johns Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization that promotes the river’s health, said JaxPort is steaming ahead to dredge the St. Johns River without the public having an opportunity to “understand all the pros and cons” in a “transparent community conversation” that fleshes out the environmental and financial ramifications.
“Let’s have that conversation,” St. Johns Riverkeeper Executive Director Jimmy Orth said in comments to the board. “Let’s determine and make sure this project is right for Jacksonville and it is right for the St. Johns River.”
Supporters of deepening the channel told the board the time has come for action.
“This is critical for all of us,” said Marie-Claire Abercrombie, the distribution and branch manager for Bedrosians Tile and Stone, which uses Jacksonville’s port to import tile that’s distributed through a 320,000-square-foot facility on the Southside.
The board heard almost an hour of public comments during a standing-room only meeting.
Most speakers favored dredging and have ties to the port through their jobs, such as longshoremen, shipping agents and distribution center managers.
The Clay Florida Economic Development Corp. and the Nassau County Economic Development Board also endorsed the deepening as a regional benefit.
“Jacksonville is a port city,” said Vince Cameron, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1408. “For us to continue to be that port city, we have got to raise the bar.”
The dredging for the first phase will start at the end of this year or early 2018 by using $21.5 million from the federal government, $21.6 million from the state Department of Transportation, and $2.9 million from JaxPort. The state put up the most of the money for the non-federal share to get the project jump-started, but the multi-year plan calls for a 50-50 split between state and local sources for whatever the federal government doesn’t cover.
JaxPort plans to seek $47 million to $150 million in city funding for the full 11-mile stretch of the St. Johns River up to to the Blount Island Terminal, located just east of the Dames Point bridge. The city has not committed any money. JaxPort officials say they will ask for it in two years, at which time it will be more clear how much money the federal government is willing to put into the dredging project.
Another unknown at this point is what it will cost — and who will foot the bill — for upgrading the Blount Island Terminal so it will have enough capacity to handle all the cargo containers that JaxPort predicts will come when the 40-foot channel is deepened to 47 feet. The port authority’s strategic master plan outlines several hundred million dollars of potential improvements at Blount Island over the long term.
JaxPort officials says the master plan is a guide, not a concrete list.
JaxPort also is negotiating with TraPac about relocating that company’s operations to Blount Island Terminal from the Dames Point Terminal. The construction of TraPac’s operation at the Dames Point Terminal, located west of the Dames Point bridge, still has tens of millions of dollars of outstanding debt.
JaxPort board chairman Jim Citrano said the federal government decision to start paying for the dredging “happened quickly” after years of working to gain that green light.
“I think we’ve been as transparent as we can be, given the restrictions we have with contractual issues between our tenants,” Citrano said in remarks at the end of the board meeting. “We have work to do in bringing the entire community in behind this project, to the extent that can happen.”
Orth said a debate by City Council over whether the city should put up a large amount of money for dredging would air out all the issues, but that debate isn’t happening because JaxPort is going to start the dredging now and ask later for city money needed to finish the job.
Orth said St. Johns Riverkeeper tried to compromise with JaxPort on a “balanced approach” that would have paired deepening the river with environmental work for the health of the river. He said a city task force in 2015 recommended $50 million for environmental mitigation, but the deepening project will only spend a fraction of that with $3.5 million for mitigation.
The lower amount is based on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that determined the deepening would have little impact on the river. St. Johns Riverkeeper is challenging in a federal lawsuit, contending the corps’ analysis is flawed and incomplete.