Feds approve $32M additional funding for St. Johns River dredging

$23 million first phase of controversial $484 million project underway

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Army Corps of Engineers on Monday awarded an additional $32.4 million in federal funding to the Jacksonville Port Authority to continue deepening the St. Johns River to allow larger container ships to access the city's seaports.

The funding comes on top of the $17.5 million the Corps devoted to the project last year.

“Continued federal investment into the expansion at JaxPort is a huge win for our region,” said U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville.

Boosters of the effort to deepen the first 11 miles of the river to 47 feet, authorized by the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, was forecast to create 15,000 new jobs, with an estimated $24 return for every $1 invested.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, also applauded the release of the Corps funding, not just for the harbor-deepening project, but for $82 million for the Herbert Hoover Dike Rehabilitation, $28.4 million to renourish Brevard County beaches, $26.9 million for South Florida Ecosystem restoration and other projects in the Sunshine State.

"Taxpayer dollars will be returning to Florida and put to good use to prevent flooding in our communities, protect drinking water, bolster trade, and restore America's Everglades,” Rubio said. “In the coming weeks, I expect that the Army Corps will also release a supplemental work plan that will allocate federal disaster funds to fully restore Florida’s hurricane-impacted beaches and finally fulfill the federal government’s responsibility to expedite and complete the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike.”

Florida's other senator, Bill Nelson, also applauded the Corps' release of funding for area projects.

"This year’s plan will fund several important projects in Florida, including beach renourishment projects in Sarasota and Brevard, harbor deepening projects in Jacksonville and funding to continue restoring the Everglades and repairing Herbert Hoover Dike," Nelson said.

JaxPort CEO Eric Green applauded the additional federal funding.

“These dollars signal that the federal government believes in our deepening project and has confidence in our ability to provide a return on this investment," Green said in a statement. "We appreciate the support of our elected representatives in Washington, Tallahassee and here at home who work tirelessly to ensure JaxPort remains globally competitive, continues to generate high-quality jobs for our citizens and offers opportunity for generations to come.”

The $484 million project to dredge the river to allow massive cargo ships to reach Jacksonville's port is not without its critics. In January, the St. Johns Riverkeeper was denied an emergency injunction to stop the project until modifications to the dredging project were studied. The organization still has a pending federal lawsuit to stop the project.

The Riverkeeper wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to redo its 2014 impact report because JaxPort last year changed the number of miles of dredging from 13 to 11, which would require relocating some of the port facilities at the Dames Point Terminal. The Riverkeeper has also amended its April 2017 complaint to argue that the Corps should be made to do an additional risk analysis after the storm-surge flooding along the river during Hurricane Irma.

In rejecting the Riverkeeper’s motion for an injunction, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard wrote the environmental group “may be able to establish at a later stage in the proceedings that the Corps’ models are flawed.”

The state of Florida approved $15.5 million in its 2017-18 budget and Gov. Rick Scott, who is leaving office next January, has committed that the state would spend over $200 million. JaxPort is asking Jacksonville City Council to contribute between $47 and $150 million to the project, but no city money has been allocated.

The contractor, The Dutra Group, has until July 2019 to deepen the initial 3 miles of the river by 7 feet. The project will consist of four phases and is expected to take about two years.

A record 1.3 million containers moved through the Port of Jacksonville last year, making it Florida’s largest container port complex. The Asian container trade, with cargo moving aboard the largest ships calling the East Coast, continues to be the fastest-growing segment of the shipping industry.

The Corps on Monday also announced it will spend an additional $34.7 million this year on deepening the shipping channel to Savannah’s seaport. The agency is overseeing the $973 million project to deepen the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean.

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