Deepening of Jacksonville port gets approval

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville is included in a bill headed to a conference committee that would then head to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to allow for dredging the St. Johns River, officials announced Wednesday at the Jacksonville Port Authority.

The bill would take care of 65 percent of federal costs of the project, which is expected to cost $684 million.

Mayor Alvin Brown said he's optimistic the governor will help cover other costs. The local government will be responsible for some of the costs, too.

"Now we must continue to fight for the funding that is needed to complete the dredging," Rep. Corrine Brown said. "Yet because of today's news, I am very confident that this can be accomplished if we all work together in the same way we did to secure the Chief's Report."

"What a giant step forward for the northeast Florida economy," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw after learning that the Chief's Report had been signed. "Dredging of the St. Johns River means more jobs, more trade, and more economic growth for the region; that's why I've stood 100 percent behind this project from Day 1. We've got a win-win that will grow the economy and create jobs for generations to come."

It's expected the project would create 14,000 indirect and direct jobs in the next 22 years, according to Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce President Daniel Davis.

Leaders hope the dredging would start in 2016 and would be complete by 2019.

"The Jacksonville port and north Florida community that I represent can't afford any more delays in preparing the port for larger modern ships set to arrive in 2015," Brown said. "A deeper draft is critical to the continued viability of JaxPort as an economic engine for northeast Florida."

The next step for the bill is for it to pass the conference committee, then it would head to the House and the Senate possibly in the next month, Brown said.

"This will economically change Jacksonville into a major port competing with New York to receive the big ships from Asia through an expanded Panama Canal," Sen. Bill Nelson said.

While some are hopeful about the bill, the dredging is causing concern for many who live along the river. Some fear if the bottom of the river is dug out, the sides of the river may start to fall in.

Richard Lindberg said several docks along Hecksher Drive have already collapsed along the river.

"If all of a sudden all our docks disappear, then of course I'm concerned," said Lindberg.

Lindberg's dock has survived a collapse and he said he still supports dredging the St. Johns, but he wants to ensure people who live along the river are protected.

Rod Sullivan is an attorney who represents two homeowners whose docks collapsed in 2008. Those homeowners claim dredging was the cause.

"When you dredge out of center of river you lose support for banks of the river, and therefore docks and seawalls collapse back into the river," said Sullivan.

But one person concerned about this project is St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who believes it will only harm the river.

"We believe the environmental aspects are being underestimated and the economic impacts are being overestimated to try to distract everyone from damage that will happen to St. Johns River," said Rinaman.

A dredging task force has been created in Jacksonville and a meeting is set for Friday.