JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville officially entered the era of deeper water for cargo ships as it became the third Southeast port to complete a mega-dredge so it can handle more cargo containers from fast-growing Asian shippers.
A contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dropped a clamshell into the St. Johns River on Monday and scooped a ceremonial final batch of silt for the deepening financed by $420 million from all levels of government.
“I was elated,” JaxPort CEO Eric Green said of the moment.
Southeast ports have been in a race to deepen their water for Asian-based cargo ships. Miami deepened its channel to 52 feet in 2015 and the port of Savannah, which is one of the busiest in the nation for Asian trade, went to 47 feet in March.
Charleston’s port is on track to complete a deepening to 52 feet for its harbor later this year.
In Jacksonville, the pursuit toward deeper water started in 2005 with a feasibility study and intensified around 2010 with the kick-off of an in-depth environmental impact study that resulted in Congress giving authorization in 2014 for the deepening. That opened the door for federal funding in phases.
The years of study and financial requests since 2010 spanned the administrations of three U.S. presidents, two Florida governors, three Jacksonville mayors and four JaxPort CEOs.
Green, wearing one of the event’s caps with “47” emblazoned on it for the new depth of the 47-foot deep river channel, joined JaxPort in 2005 in its government relations division, so he has been working since then on gaining support for the dredge in some form or fashion.
“Being a hometown boy, this is really special to me because a lot of the people who earn a living from what we do were people I grew up with from my neighborhoods, I went to school with and I continue to see to this day,” he said. “It holds something special in my heart to be able to bring something like this to our town.”
Jacksonville’s “port of the future”
In a major change along the way, JaxPort developed a funding model that paid to dredge 11 miles of the river from a depth of 40 feet down to 47 feet, rather than going the full 13 miles authorized by Congress.
The deepening for 11 miles goes to the Blount Island terminal east of the Dames Point bridge, stopping short of the two additional miles that would go to another JaxPort terminal on the west side of the bridge.
SSA Marine operates on Blount Island and will be the hub for attracting cargo ships making routes between Asia and the East Coast. JaxPort recently completed $100 million worth of improvements at Blount Island that will enable two large cargo ships to dock simultaneously for service by SSA Marine.
SSA Marine is making additional improvements and will be bringing in three all-electric new cranes.
JaxPort Chairwoman Wendy Hamilton said the authority set out to build a “port of the future” as part of the river deepening.
“The future is here and JaxPort is equipped to meet the needs of the nation’s supply chain for generations to come,” Hamilton said in remarks at the ceremony.
U.S. Army Col. James Booth, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, said the deepening is a “mega-project that cements Jacksonville’s status as a critical port of call for global 21st Century commerce and economic development.”
Concerns about impact of dredging on St. Johns River, flooding
The Corps and JaxPort faced opposition from the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization that sued in federal court to stop the dredging, contending it would cause harm to the health of the river beyond what the Corps identified in its environmental impact report.
The Riverkeeper also contended the deepening would worsen flooding and challenged the economic assumptions used to justify the federal expenditure on the project. A federal judge ruled in favor of the Corps on that lawsuit, allowing the deepening that started in 2018 to continue.
The federal government, the state Department of Transportation, the city of Jacksonville, JaxPort and SSA Marine put up a total of about $420 million for the 11-mile project since 2014. The actual cost could end up being tens of millions of dollars less because bids by dredging companies came in under budget.
The 11-mile dredge was slated to finish at the end of October and wrapped up about six months sooner.
“That’s big for a project of this magnitude,” Corps project manager Jason Harrah said.
JaxPort’s next mission will be to sell Jacksonville as a port since bigger ships carrying more cargo will be able to traverse the deepened river.
“This is not the end of anything,” U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville, said. “This is really the beginning.”
Green said JaxPort will tout its ability to handle two-way ship traffic on the river, congestion-free berths, and being a one-day truck drive from 100 million consumers.
“We’re not trying to be a Savannah,” he said. “Let’s be real about it. What we’re trying to be is be the best port in this region. We want to produce great high-paying jobs.”
He said he has been working on developing a funding plan for paying to raise the JEA transmission lines that span the St. Johns River near the Blount Island terminal. A consultant for JEA issued a report earlier this month putting the estimated cost of building new, higher towers for the lines at $42 million.
JaxPort officials have said the 185-foot height of the power lines over the river poses a conflict for some of the bigger cargo ships that would otherwise be able to call on Blount Island with the deeper water.