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Port Authority at a crossroads

An estimated $400 million is needed to deepen the St. Johns River

By DAVID HUNT, The Times-Union


By 2015, container cargo loading and off-loading in Jacksonville could more than quadruple, putting thousands of additional tractor-trailers at the crossroads of Florida 9A and Heckscher Drive.

The prospective growth comes as the Jacksonville Port Authority approaches a crossroads of its own.

At a time the authority is planning to upgrade roads and on-ramps for the truck traffic, officials are continuing with efforts to secure federal assistance to dredge the St. Johns River.

Without the dredging, many of the trucks expected may as well stay parked. A booming expectation of more than 3 million containers annually would be cut in half, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Ferrin told the Times-Union's editorial board Monday.

The problem: With a $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal under way, Jacksonville has to prepare for bigger vessels, referred to as "post-Panamax," to keep a competitive edge. Ferrin called the 41-foot-deep channel near Blount Island and Dames Point "perilously shallow" and unable to accommodate ships capable of carrying more than twice the cargo than the ones calling port today.

Another problem: dredging to 45 feet - a depth that still may not be enough for post-Panamax ships - is expected to cost more than $400 million.

"If we have 41 feet of water, forget it," Ferrin said. "They'll bring in smaller stuff, just enough to keep those terminals running. What a shame that would be."

Jacksonville's ports see around 700,000 20-foot equivalent units annually. The growth coming when Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. begins shipping to the First Coast later this year, combined with a pending deal that would bring in major Korean shipping company Hanjin, will easily trump the average 5 percent growth the authority has seen in each of the last 10 years, Ferrin said.

But it's a question of how much.

Deputy Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer Ronald Baker said the dredging is necessary for the port to realize its potential.

"We need 45 feet in the long run. That's a fact," Baker said. "We have to find a way to get it done."

Authority officials are working toward dredging and blasting the channel to 45 feet by 2015. Federal funding could be the deciding factor. Legislators have supported the port in the past.

A recent example came last month, when the authority was awarded $2.8 million toward a $22 million project to dredge between Talleyrand and the Chaseville Turn.

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Revised: February 10, 2010 .

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