Port of Jacksonville joins deepwater club for Asian cargo

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Jacksonville has officially entered the era of deeper water for cargo ships by becoming the third port in the Southeast to complete a mega-dredge so it can handle more cargo containers from shippers fast-growing Asians.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractor dropped a shell into the Saint John River on Monday and retrieved a final ceremonial batch of silt for the deepening funded by $420 million from all levels of government.

“I was thrilled,” JaxPort CEO Eric Green said of the moment.

Southeast ports have been in a race to deepen their waters for Asia-based cargo ships. Miami deepened its channel to 52 feet in 2015 and the Port of Savannah, which is one of the busiest in the country for Asian trade, deepened to 47 feet in March.

Charleston Harbor is on track to complete a 52-foot deepening for its harbor later this year.


In Jacksonville, the pursuit to deeper waters began in 2005 with a feasibility study and intensified around 2010 with the initiation of an extensive environmental impact study that resulted in Congressional authorization in 2014 to deepening. This opened the door to phased federal funding.

The years of study and financial demands since 2010 have spanned the administrations of three US presidents, two Florida governors, three Jacksonville mayors and four JaxPort CEOs.

Green, wearing one of the event caps with “47” engraved on it for the new 47-foot-deep river channel depth, joined JaxPort in 2005 in its government relations division, so he’s been working to get support to flirt with him in one way or another.

“Being a hometown boy is really special to me because a lot of the people who make a living off of what we do were people I grew up with in my neighborhood, people I went to school and that I continue to see to this day,” he said. “It holds something special in my heart to be able to bring something like this to our city.”

Jacksonville’s “Port of the Future”

In a major shift along the way, JaxPort developed a funding model that paid to dredge 11 miles of the river from 40 feet to 47 feet deep, rather than the 13 miles authorized by Congress.

The 11-mile deepening goes to the Blount Island terminal on the east side of the Dames Point bridge, stopping short of the additional two miles that would go to another JaxPort terminal on the west side of the bridge.

SSA Marine operates on Blount Island and will be the hub to attract freighters making routes between Asia and the East Coast. JaxPort recently completed $100 million worth of upgrades to Blount Island that will allow two large freighters to dock simultaneously for SSA Marine service.

SSA Marine is making further improvements and will bring three new all-electric cranes.

JaxPort chairwoman Wendy Hamilton said the authority had set out to build a “port of the future” as part of the deepening of the river.

“The future is here and JaxPort is equipped to meet the nation’s supply chain needs for generations to come,” Hamilton said at the ceremony.

U.S. Army Col. James Booth, commander of the Jacksonville District Army Corps of Engineers, said the deepening is a “mega-project that cements Jacksonville’s status as a critical port of call for global trade and economic development in the 21st century”.

Concerns about the impact of dredging on the Saint John River, flooding

The Corps and JaxPort faced opposition from the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization which sued in federal court to stop the dredging, saying it would harm the health of the river beyond what the Corps has identified in its environmental impact report.

The Riverkeeper also argued that the deepening would make flooding worse and challenged the economic assumptions used to justify federal spending on the project. A federal judge ruled in favor of the Corps on that lawsuit, allowing the deepening that began in 2018 to continue.

The federal government, state Department of Transportation, City of Jacksonville, JaxPort and SSA Marine have invested a total of approximately $420 million for the 11-mile project since 2014. The actual cost could end up being Tens of millions of dollars less because bids from dredging companies have been under budget.

The 11-mile dredge was due to finish at the end of October and end about six months earlier.

“It’s huge for a project of this magnitude,” said Corps project manager Jason Harrah.

JaxPort’s next mission will be to sell Jacksonville as a port since bigger ships carrying more cargo will be able to cross the deepened river.

“It’s not the end of anything,” said U.S. Representative John Rutherford, R-Jacksonville. “It’s really the beginning.”

Green said JaxPort would tout its ability to handle two-way river traffic, traffic-free berths and the one-day truck ride of 100 million consumers.

“We’re not trying to be a Savannah,” he said. ” Let’s be realistic. What we try to be is to be the best port in this region. We want to create great, well-paying jobs.

He said he was working on a financing plan to pay to raise the JEA transmission lines that span the St. Johns River near the Blount Island Terminal. A JEA consultant released a report earlier this month putting the estimated cost of constructing new, taller towers for the lines at $42 million.

JaxPort officials said the 185ft height of the power lines above the river poses a conflict for some of the larger freighters that might otherwise call at Blount Island with the deeper waters.

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