JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The largest-ever cargo ship to come down the St Johns River, at about 1,000 feet long, docked at Blount Island on Friday.
The reality is, however, that the river may not be able to handle the larger ships without a deeper channel, which could hurt business.
The Jacksonville Port Authority brings in nearly $19 billion a year, and it's already making changes to keep up with the changing market.
With the growing consumer market, companies are using larger cargo ships to transport their products. One of the larger ships at JaxPort right now can hold up to 7,000 containers.
JaxPort has raised its cranes to manage larger ships, but one of the most important projects for them is the deepening of the St. Johns River.
"I think people are used to getting things from the big-box store and finding what we want on the shelf and never really giving it another thought," said JaxPort spokeswoman Nancy Rubin. "But there is a process, there is a thriving industry."
Transporting goods is an invisible process for many, but at JaxPort hundreds of people are loading and unloading containers, moving them on trucks and getting them to the stores where shoppers buy products.
One ship, the MOL Maxim, can handle about 1,000 more containers, but the river is too shallow for the ship to carry its maximum load.
"It has a capacity of draft of about 46 feet, and the max we can handle here today is 40 feet, so that's about 15-percent less capacity that we could utilize for imports," said Dennis Kelly, regional vice president and general manager of JaxPort.
Deepening the river is not a new project. For years, the Army Corps of Engineers have been studying the river to see how the deepening would be done and how it would affect the environment.
"There is a balance to protecting our natural assets and making sure we do leave an economically thriving region for the future," Rubin said.
It won't come cheap. The study estimates deepening 12 miles of the channel to 47 feet would cost $737 million.
But Kelly said it must be done for JaxPort to remain competitive in the international trade industry, and he said it will be worth every penny.
"It brings to the community other opportunities with logistics operations, and the truckers and everything else, DC centers," Kelly said.
The project wouldn't start until the final reports come back from the Army Corps of Engineers. That's expected sometime this year. Then Congress must decide how much federal and state money would be put into the project.
Other East Coast ports, including Miami, Norfolk, Va., and New York City, already have funds in place to deepen their channels to accommodate the larger ships. And dredging projects are also in the works for Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.
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