JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – By the first of next year, dredging of the St. Johns River could begin, although not as much of the river would we deepened as previously planned.
The Jacksonville Port Authority announced Friday that the St. Johns River dredging project would be shortened by two miles, which also reduced the price tag by $200 million.
The project initially planned to deepen 13 miles of the St. Johns River from 40 feet to 47 feet and was estimated to cost $684 million. Now, the project would only dredge 11 miles of the river, ending at the Dames Point Bridge.
The change lowers the price tag to $484 million, according to JaxPort.
"We could reduce the cost of the project significantly, but still bring in all of the benefits, such as jobs opportunity and dollars for this community," said JaxPort spokeswoman Nancy Rubin.
Additionally, JaxPort said, the federal government's share of the first phase of the construction has grown to $21.5 million -- up $4 million from the $17.5 million awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The dredging is to accommodate larger cargo ships that are using the deeper Panama Canal.
The shorter route and reduced cost do not lessen criticism from those who are concerned about the environmental impact of the dredging or worry the economic benefits wouldn't justify the expense.
Port staff said half that expense will eventually be paid by the federal government. That leaves the state, the city, JaxPort and private industry coming up with the other $240 million.
Critics say that will be a tough sell.
"What's happening now is not only has the river being shortchanged, so are the taxpayers," Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said.
Rinaman believes the project is not only environmentally unsound, she believes the port can't get all the federal funding they need. She said that is why the port has shortened the length of the project.
"The Army Corps did not do their due diligence on the environmental standpoint," Rinaman said.
JaxPort dismissed that criticism and insists that increased cargo and 15,000 jobs will come if the channel is deepened.
"The people who are saying that are not in the conference room with our Asian shippers," Rubin said. "They are not looking at the trends from the industry viewpoint. They are far removed from where we are today."
Officials from the port say they will begin one-on-one meetings with Jacksonville City Council members this week to go over any issues and concerns.
A Change.org petition supporting the deepening of the St. Johns River has drawn 374 supporters.