More study of Jacksonville port will delay improvements

Jacksonville Business Journal - by Mark Szakonyi


A crucial navigation project that will allow container ships to call on the Port of Jacksonville more often could be pushed back as far as a year.

The delay is due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville office being directed by its head office to provide a more detailed analysis of the project’s economic benefit and an alternative method. Due to swift tidal currents in the St. Johns River, ships can pass the Intracoastal Waterway only during two four-and-a-half-hour-long windows each day.

An alternative project to widen the river won’t solve the navigation issue completely, nor will it solve erosion issues like the originally proposed solution, said Steve Ross, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District.

But the corps’ higher-ups want to understand the maximum benefit of the project at Mile Point, Ross said.

Jacksonville Port Authority Executive Director Rick Ferrin said he plans to present his case for keeping the analysis to the original approach — moving an underwater wall that guides the river — to officials at the corps’ Washington, D.C., headquarters.

“We don’t have another year to add to the process,” Ferrin said.

Container ships’ limited access to the port diminishes Jacksonville’s competitiveness with other East Coast ports. The project is also necessary to maximize the benefit of Jacksonville’s burgeoning container trade market, which received a boost earlier this year with the opening of TraPac Inc.’s container terminal at

Dames Point.

“If we want to play in the big leagues with Savannah and Charleston, we need to have 40 feet of depth with no restrictions,” said Dennis Kelly, TraPac regional vice president.

Forty feet is the depth at which local river pilots will allow container ships to pass Mile Point to access the port. The draft for the project, which could cost between $25 million and $50 million, was expected to be finished by the end of this year, but now the corps expects the draft to come six months to a year later.

It will likely take an additional two or three years for the project to receive funding appropriations and an extra 18 months to complete, Ross said.

About 75 percent of the funding for the project will likely come through appropriations within the U.S. Congress’ Water Resources Development Act. Ferrin, who estimates the project will cost about

$60 million, said the rest of the funding will come from the authority through capital bonds, a loan from the state’s infrastructure bank or both.

Ross said the corps’ study on whether and how to deepen the river so that post-Panamax ships can access the port hasn’t had any hiccups like the Mile Point study. The expanded Panama Canal, which is expected to be open to larger ships in early 2015, will make East Coast ports such as Jacksonville more attractive to shipping companies, but the channel needs to be at least 50 feet deep to give them access.

The corps’ draft of the deepening project is expected at the soonest by the end of 2010. | 265-2239