JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - New funding for the deepening of the St Johns River was approved on Wednesday.
The Army Corps of Engineers awarded $17.5 million for the Jacksonville Port deepening project in its fiscal year 2017 work program.
While the money is just the beginning of the funding needed, it gets the ball rolling towards the deepening of the shipping channel and eventually being able to bring larger ships into and out of JAXPORT.
The project would deepen 13 miles of the St Johns River from 40 feet to 47 feet. The dredging project is expected to take five to six years to complete, with an estimated cost of $684 million is local, state, and federal money to get done.
Congressmen John Rutherford, Ted Yoho, Al Lawson, and Daniel Webster sent a letter Friday to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Assistant Secretary of the Army asking that the project be included in the funding.
"This project has been approved for some time. We are just getting the money to get started," Rutherford said. "JAXPORT supports a tremendous output. Almost $27 billion of economic output, 132,000 jobs. This is very important for northeast Florida."
Port leaders have said that this dredging is a must if the port wants to remain competitive on the east coast, bringing in larger ships now passing through the expanded Panama Canal.
In April, the St. Johns Riverkeeper filed a federal challenge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement over the project to deepen the harbor.
The corps' 2015 report approved the impact statement's finding that the dredging of 13 miles of the St. Johns River to deepen the harbor from 40 to 47 feet was economically justified and environmentally acceptable. The Jacksonville Port Authority said the dredging is necessary to accommodate larger ships and compete with other ports.
The Riverkeeper asked for a review of the corps' findings, claiming the assessment failed to take the required hard look at the environmental consequences of dredging, failed to provide appropriate in-kind mitigation for the environmental damage that will result from the dredging, failed to provide an adequate comprehensive economic analysis to determine the merits of such a massive expenditure of public funds, failed to comply with public participation requirements and failed to supplement the environmental impact statement when relevant new information or circumstances arose.
"We can't afford to roll the dice with the future of the St. Johns. Once the damage is done, there is no turning back," St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said. "Unfortunately, the Army Corps has failed to exercise due diligence and provide the public with assurances that our river will be protected."
In addition to the legal arguments raised by the Riverkeeper, local logistics expert Dale Lewis recently conducted an independent analysis that raises questions about the economic viability of the proposed dredging.
"This recent analysis needs to be taken seriously to make sure we are not pursuing a dredge to nowhere," Rinaman said. "If the deep dredge doesn't make economic sense, why even gamble with the health of our community's greatest natural asset in the first place."
The dredging project is estimated to cost $684.2 million and take five to six years to complete.
The Florida Department of Transportation’s has allocated $35.5 million of the $40 million needed for Phase One over the next two years and preliminary work was to begin in 2017.
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