Intracoastal Waterway, St. Johns River 'intersection’ key juncture in JaxPort’s future

Fixing bottleneck where St. Johns meets Intracoastal seen crucial for future cargo.

By David Bauerlein

Story updated at 12:32 AM on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010

Questions about how much cargo will move through Jacksonville’s port in future years are complicating the Port Authority’s pursuit of money to clear the way for bigger ships and cargo loads.

The Army Corps recently decided to do more economic analysis for a study of Mile Point, an area where strong currents buffet ships because the Intracoastal Waterway crosses the St. Johns River. Even though it’s a 40-foot channel, ships can go through that stretch only if they draw less than 33 feet of water for two-thirds of the day. The exception is high tide, when there is more leeway for ships to safely pass through despite the unpredictable cross-currents.

The Mile Point problem is long-standing , but the restriction on navigation has become more urgent as bigger ships come to Jacksonville, especially liners coming from Asia.

“That’s got to get fixed soon because it’s affecting our existing customers,” said David Kulik, board chairman for the Port Authority.

Mile Point is separate from an ongoing harbor deepening study, but in both projects, the forecast for future cargo is a crucial part of the review.

The corps determines the cost of a project and compares it to the expected economic benefits that would come from enabling more cargo shipments. That benefit-cost ratio helps the federal government prioritize what projects will deliver the biggest bang for the buck when Jacksonville competes with other ports for funding.

Rick Ferrin, chief executive officer for the Port Authority, said the fact that TraPac opened a new terminal a year ago and Hanjin plans to open a terminal in 2013 shows federal spending in Jacksonville will reap economic benefits.

“They wouldn’t be investing millions of dollars and tremendous time and effort unless they knew — not hoped, knew ­— they would be moving tremendous amounts of cargo through their terminals,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commander for the South Atlantic Division of the Army Corps, said in a letter sent last week to JaxPort the corps fully understands the importance of a “timely solution” to the navigation problem at Mile Point.

He said “one of our toughest and most time-consuming tasks has been to obtain information on what commodities will be moved through Jacksonville, how many vessels will be required to move those commodities, and what world trade routes will be serviced” by the TraPac and Hanjin terminals.

Steve Ross, senior project engineer at the Jacksonville office of the corps, said in an interview the corps typically can look at prior years to help make forecasts over a 50-year period. He said it’s “kind of unique” in Jacksonville because the TraPac terminal is just a year old and Hanjin’s terminal hasn’t been built.

“There’s not a lot of historic information,” he said.

Corps officials declined to comment on the results of their economic forecasts, saying those figures are subject to change before the study is released for public comment.

The corps’ current timetable calls for finishing the Mile Point feasibility study in 2012. If Congress followed with authorization and funding, construction could start in 2014 and finish in 2015. That would be two years later than the timeline sought by JaxPort.

Ferrin said he thinks the corps can compress that schedule by making it a priority to finish the feasibility study faster. JaxPort’s goal is for the Mile Point work to be finished when the Hanjin terminal opens for business in mid-2013.

The economic forecast hasn’t caused any delay in the corps study of deepening the harbor. The corps still expects to finish that study in 2012, which would make it possible for dredging to start in 2014. Harbor deepening could carry a price tag of about $500 million and there’s no guarantee money would be immediately available.

Other Southeast ports want the federal government to deepen their harbors because the Panama Canal widening, slated to be done in 2014, will let super-sized cargo ships sail from Asia to the East Coast in large numbers.