The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved more than $17 million Wednesday for deepening a portion of the St. Johns River. But with the full cost of the JaxPort dredging estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the newest allocation is just a drop in the river.
The money is part of the Army Corps’ work plan, which details the group’s annual priorities.
The $40 million first phase of the dredging project, which JaxPort officials said will help it compete with its northern neighbors, is slated to begin this year after close to that amount in state funding was secured.
The Army Corps estimates the full cost of the project will exceed $680 million, a little more than half of which state and local governments are responsible for.
Northeast Florida Congressman John Rutherford, a dredge supporter, said the new federal funds are a good start.
“Something like this is so important for the state of Florida, not just Jacksonville. You’re talking about creating 15,000 jobs. JaxPort is already the largest container port in Florida. We really need to grow it so we can compete with ports like Savannah and others,” he said.
As the Times-Union reported, the port in Savannah, Georgia, is breaking growth records, and JaxPort is growing its Asian trade too.
Still, critics of the dredge, like the St. Johns Riverkeeper, argue trouble is ahead, based on an analysis by former CSX executive Dale Lewis. He said with companies choosing to build distribution centers in places other than Jacksonville, port cities like Savannah have a higher capacity for trade.
“When you combine all the port summaries, it points us to a very tough competitive environment, especially if you’re focused on taking market share away from non-Florida ports,” he said. “That is the backbone of the Florida ports strategy.”
Rutherford dismissed those concerns, saying the deepening isn't a “zero-sum game,” and that Jacksonville could grow along with others.
City leaders and JaxPort officials are still trying to figure out how much city taxpayers will eventually be on the hook for. But economics isn't the only hurdle; the St. Johns Riverkeeper is suing to stop the project over environmental concerns.
JaxPort wasnt the only Florida port to receive the money, however. Port Tampa Bay and Port Everglades also saw gains. In total, the Sunshine State is receiving more than $29 million in federal port funding.
Gov. Rick Scott hailed the move in an emailed statement Thursday.
"It is great news that the Trump Administration is making major investments in Florida ports, including Port Tampa Bay, JAXPORT and Port Everglades," he said. "Since 2011, we have invested over $1 billion in state funding in our 15 world-class seaports and we appreciate the Trump Administration understanding the important role our ports have in supporting our economy and creating jobs.
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