Harbor deepening at port waiting on Congress decision


Jacksonville Business Journal - September 7, 2007

by Tony Quesada

Staff Writer


JACKSONVILLE -- How much the federal government should spend in fiscal 2008 to deepen the Jacksonville harbor from just west of Dames Point to the Talleyrand Marine Terminal depends on which chamber of Congress is asked.

For several years, the Jacksonville Port Authority has been lobbying to get funding for the project that would deepen that segment to 41 feet to match the stretch from the channel's entrance to mile marker 14.7.

This year, the authority's hopes rest with the Senate. Its version of the 2008 Energy and Water Development Act, the bill that appropriates money for such navigational construction in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' budget, includes $3 million for the Jacksonville project. The Senate bill was introduced in July and has yet to be voted on.

The House's version, which was passed in July, appropriates no money for the project.

Both bills are more than $31 billion spending measures, of which the Corps of Engineers' budget is less than 20 percent.

The $3 million for the project in the Senate bill was requested by Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., but was not included in the administration's budget request.

Local share $5M

Although the Senate's appropriation is well short of the estimated $20 million-plus cost of the project, it may be enough -- if combined with port authority money -- to do some appreciable work.

The authority, which as the project's local sponsor is responsible for about $5 million of the cost, could contribute more than its prorated portion against $3 million now -- up to its total share.

In the past, port authority Executive Director Rick Ferrin has acknowledged the risk in fronting most of the local sponsor's portion: There's no guarantee the federal government will ever appropriate its share.

Nevertheless, authority officials have said that if they could get a few million dollars they would like to do the portion of the project known as the Chaseville Turn. Located between mile markers 17 and 18, the turn limits ships' drafts during certain tidal conditions from exceeding 33 feet while entering port or 34 feet while leaving. Part of the project is to rework the Chaseville Turn to allow ships to draw 38 feet.

Although a small part of the overall project, modifying the Chaseville Turn could yield big benefits for vessel operators at Talleyrand. Generally, an extra foot of draft allows a ship to load about 1,800 more tons, which equates to about 150 shipping containers.

The Corps of Engineers has been ready to start construction since late 2004, when it finished deepening the channel to 41 feet from the river's mouth to marker 14.7. But problems occurred getting congressional authorization, and, subsequently, getting money appropriated has been challenging because of federal budgetary constraints.

One factor that could work for Jacksonville is that the Senate bill's number is backed by a member from each party.

"You have a champion inside both channels," said John Doyle, vice president of government affairs for Waterways Council Inc., which advocates sufficient funding for navigational improvements.

In addition, the port has support from House members in both parties, including Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., and Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.

Time, meanwhile, could work against the authority. Those who follow energy and water appropriations are pessimistic that the Senate will take up the bill immediately after its recent recess. The Senate has more than 10 appropriation bills to consider, and "the $64,000 question is what priority the Senate will take in picking up" the unfinished bills, Doyle said.

"There's no chance the Senate will finish the majority of those bills or even many of those bills" before fiscal 2008 begins Oct. 1, Doyle said. "Most people believe the energy and water appropriations bill will be one of those not completed."

For bills that aren't finished, Congress will likely enact continuing resolutions or possibly a single omnibus continuing resolution as it did last year. Then the question would be whether the Senate would continue working on each appropriations bill or let the continuing resolution remain in effect for the year as it did for many of the fiscal 2007 appropriations.

That could move project funding decisions to the Corps of Engineers, a scenario that unfolded last year to the Jacksonville project's detriment.