Call it the Better Jacksonville Port Plan.
In a speech Thursday to the Propeller Club, Jacksonville Port Authority Executive Director Rick Ferrin said the port will need about $1.4 billion for construction and dredging between now and 2015 so it can climb into the top tier of ports on the East Coast.
JaxPort’s plans would rival the $2.2 billion Better Jacksonville Plan, which voters approved in 2000 with a half-cent sales tax, in financial impact.
Unlike City Hall, JaxPort does not have any taxing authority. Instead, it would turn to the federal government and compete with other ports for dredging dollars, a battle that Ferrin predicted will be “the fight of my life in Washington, D.C.” JaxPort also would issue bonds and pay off the debt with revenue from companies using the port.
Ferrin gave his overview during his annual “State of the Port” speech to the Jacksonville chapter of the Propeller Club, a nonprofit organization that promotes the maritime industry.
Dredging the ship channel would be the most expensive project. Ferrin said Jacksonville’s 41-foot channel is the shallowest of any major port. JaxPort wants to deepen it to between 45 and 50 feet. The estimated cost would be $500 million. Ferrin said JaxPort would seek $350 million from the federal government and the Port would pay for the rest.
Ferrin said he wants the dredging done by 2015 so Jacksonville is able to handle the massive cargo ships that will call on East Coast ports after the Panama Canal is deepened. He said Jacksonville has put itself in position to capitalize on the so-called post-Panamax era by signing agreements with Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Hanjin for Asian shipping lanes.
“These aren’t opportunities that happened by chance,” he said. “These are opportunities that we made.”
In addition to dredging, other projects in the $1.4 billion plan are construction and equipment for a Hanjin cargo terminal, improvements for the Port of Talleyrand, and upgrades of existing port facilities. Ferrin also said he hopes Jacksonville will expand its cruise ship business, which would require building a new cruise terminal at an estimated cost of $60 million in Mayport.
Ferrin said he thinks cruises are a viable, long-term industry for Jacksonville. But he said JaxPort is moving slowly toward a final decision and could “pull the plug and change course” if building the cruise terminal would be a financial drag.
He said as the port expands and the Port Authority takes on more debt, a big test for JaxPort will be making sure revenue growth will keep pace. He said ports that borrow excessively fall into the “death spiral” of a lower bond rating and higher interest rates.