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Business Brief: As Scott Ushers In 'Big Ship Era,' Jacksonville Port Deepening In Question

John Burr
A cargo ship is unloaded at Jacksonville'e Blount Island Terminal.

A super-sized cargo ship was met with great fanfare when it docked in Miami over the weekend. The MOL Majesty is the first neo-Panamax vessel to reach Florida after sailing through the recently expanded Panama Canal.

Officials say it’s the payoff of more than $1 billion the state has invested in ports since Gov. Rick Scott took office, and in a news release, Scott hailed its arrival as the dawn of the "big ship era." 

But in Jacksonville, a St. Johns River dredging project aimed at ushering in the new, larger ships is having trouble setting sail.

Analyst John Burr tells WJCT News Director Jessica Palombo why that is in this week’s Business Brief.

When JAXPORT passed its annual budget recently, it allocated $47 million toward the 13-mile St. Johns River dredging project. That’s $32 million in state funding and $15 million from the port, with the idea of beginning construction next year.

Overall, that’s a drop in the bucket toward what would be the largest public works project in the city’s history. Of the estimated $700 million it will take to complete the project, the city of Jacksonville is expected to pay around $200 million, with the federal and state governments’ paying the rest.

Port officials say a deeper St. Johns River channel is needed to accommodate the ever-larger cargo ships that are being used to carry cargo around the world. If the water isn’t deep enough, these new ships can’t get to the docks.

Aside from the huge price tag, the project is competing with other city priorities.

City Council leaders have a list of $700 million in needed infrastructure improvements, including  roadway improvements, resurfacing, American with Disabilities Act compliance, removing polluting septic tanks and making improvements downtown.

Meanwhile, Mayor Lenny Curry is laser focused on getting a sales tax extension passed by voters to help pay down billions of dollars of pension debt.

The project also faces a legal challenge from the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

But perhaps most damaging: Nobody is out in front pushing for the dredging project besides the port. This represents a major historical shift in how Jacksonville perceives itself. One long-time businessman familiar with the port told Burr, the port used to be ingrained in the city’s culture with shipping featuring prominently in the city’s beginning. But now, we are thinking of ourselves as more of an entrepreneurial city, a tech hub, a small business mecca. Those are the “sexy” ideas that are sucking up all the economic-development air.

But of course supporters would say that’s a shortsighted way of seeing things, an expanded port can bring thousands of new jobs to the region, good jobs that don’t require a college education.

Congressman John Mica (R-FL7) is trying to get the port a meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers to talk about the amount and timing of federal funding. The type of response the port gets from that meeting would be telling.

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP
WJCT Business Analyst John Burr is a veteran journalist who has been been directing news coverage and reporting in Jacksonville since 1983. He is currently also a news analyst for WJCT, where he can be heard regularly on the "First Coast Connect" media roundtable.