Local taxes could fund St. Johns River dredging


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – While it looks like Congress could be giving a thumbs down to a plan that would deepen the St. Johns River, local leaders are not about to let the project sink.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives balked at plans that would give Jacksonville permission to dredge the channel from Mayport to Dames Point by a depth of 47 feet. The reason is that a deadline was not met.

Now port officials say they can go ahead with part of the project and pay for it with some of local taxpayers' money.

According to the Jacksonville Port Authority, cargo ships generate about $19 billion a year in north Florida, and companies like TraPac, which coordinates those shipments, have made millions of dollar in investments here.

Without the river deepening, they could be forced out because bigger ships will turn away from Jacksonville and, in turn, affect money.

"It will mean jobs here," said Dennis Kelly, of TraPac. "Every additional container we bring here is manhours."

That's why both local Democrat and Republican congress members say the water bill is important. While the House has not approved the Jacksonville plan, it may not be over.

"There is some language in another bill that will not stop us from moving forward," Rep. Corrine Brown said. "Write that down. Breaking news: We will be able to move forward with our project. The key is we get reimbursed for our projects."

Two things with that: First, Brown says a compromise measure with the House and Senate could plug Jacksonville back into the plan. And second, the city can go ahead and draw up plans to dredge.

"Even if you are not authorized under the final passage of the bill, you, for three years, can spend nonfederal dollars to do the planning and design and things like that," Rep. Ander Crenshaw said.

That's where local taxpayers' money comes in. Portions of fees like the communications tax on residents' cellphone bills make their way to the port, along with money the port generates itself by conducting business.

"The number of dollars involved can be $5 (million) or $6 million," JaxPort CEO Brian Taylor said. "The funds will come out of our operating funds, and as you heard here this morning, there is an opportunity that we could seek reimbursement for those funds at a later point in time once the project is authorized. ... That is where the funds will come from."

About the Author: