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Ports bond legislation runs out of time in House session

 

Jacksonville Business Journal - May 11, 2007

by Tony Quesada

Staff Writer

 

                                                                           

TALLAHASSEE -- State legislation to authorize issuing bonds for port infrastructure statewide, a sizable portion of which could have gone to the Jacksonville Port Authority, died in the House when the legislative session ended May 4.

The failure of the Senate bill, which a staff analysis said could have generated up to $190 million in bond proceeds backed by vehicle registration fees, was mitigated by $50 million for port projects appropriated in the state budget.

"Fifty million is just a start," said Eric Green, senior director of government and external affairs for the port authority. "But we're very grateful for what was received because we understand the work that was put in by our Legislature."

Green doesn't view the port bond legislation, Senate Bill 432, as having died as much as "time just ran out" in a session dominated by reducing property taxes. The bill went through four committees by unanimous votes, with the last one acting April 24. But the Senate did not vote on the bill until May 3, and the House did not consider it in the session's final hours.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored the bill, did not return a message left with his district office.

The port authority had hoped to get a sizable portion of the bond money to help buy land. A list of the authority's top five priority projects in its five-year infrastructure investment plan listed land acquisition No. 1 and indicated an intent to seek $35.6 million in matching funds.

The authority's board is expected to vote May 21 on a proposal to pay $58.2 million for land off Heckscher Drive, including about 185 acres of uplands, 52 acres of submerged land and 75 to 150 acres of wetlands, Executive Director Rick Ferrin said.

Ferrin said prospective tenants have expressed interest in leasing the Zion Jacksonville Limited Partnership property but that there are some issues to resolve to make it usable. Among those are determining how to pay to bring rail access to the site from the nearby CSX Transportation Inc. line. Also, an underwater fuel pipe extending from an adjacent property would need to be rerouted.

Meanwhile, the authority must go through a valuation trial in June to determine the price for about 70 acres it's seeking to take from Keystone Coal Co. by eminent domain. The two sides are about $70 million apart, with Keystone saying the land is worth $80 million if developed as a coal terminal and lime kiln.

It's too soon to know how much of the $50 million in the budget will go to Jacksonville, said Nancy Leikauf, executive vice president of the Florida Ports Council. But she said officials including Gov. Charlie Crist see Jacksonville as an important port to fund.

Crist "understands the competitive issues [the port of] Jacksonville is facing," Leikauf said, referring to ports in Georgia and South Carolina.

It's unlikely, however, that money will be approved for buying land. "This $50 million is for projects to generate jobs as soon as possible," she said.

Like Green, she said the appropriation, funded from general revenue, is appreciated but doesn't come close to addressing the state's needs for port infrastructure, citing the ports council's roughly $2 billion five-year capital improvement plan for seaports. Jacksonville accounts for about $563 million of that plan.

The budget also allocated $75,000 for an eight-member Seaport Strategic Planning and Finance Task Force to study how ports in Florida are funded.

Leikauf and Green said the ports council will seek more funding in 2008, although it will be up to King whether he sponsors the bond legislation again.

"I don't know if it will be back in that form," Green said. "But we'll be back to tell our story and seek funding.

 

 

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