JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Under a dark Jacksonville sky, a large TraPac vessel approached the harbor a bit too late for high tide, carrying heavy containers of imported goods. Dark skies turned to heavy rains, and the ship had to endure the winds and rain overnight, waiting for the next high tide to rise enough to cross where the St. Johns River and the Intracoastal Waterway meet. In this area, called Mile Point, heavy crosscurrents prevent large ships from coming into the Jacksonville Port nearly two-thirds of the day.

To address this problem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District partnered with the Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT) to conduct a study. The resulting recommended plan

1. Removing the western 3,110 feet of the existing Mile Point training wall, relocating the eastern leg and constructing a new western leg of training wall;
2. Restoring Great Marsh Island as the least cost disposal method (using dredged material to restore wetlands);
3. Constructing a flow improvement channel in Chicopit Bay to offset any adverse effect of closing off Great Marsh Island.

Initial support for the plan came from U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-FL 7), who chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He and other congressional representatives favor expediting the timeline by available legislative or administrative means.

JAXPORT, Panama canal expansion and widespread support

According to its website, JAXPORT owns and operates three public marine terminals and one passenger cruise terminal in Jacksonville, Fla. -- the Blount Island Marine Terminal, the Dames
Point Marine Terminal, Talleyrand Marine Terminal and the temporary JAXPORT Cruise Terminal.

The Mile Point restrictions are adversely impacting JAXPORT customers. TraPac general manager Dennis Kelly said they had to decline business because heavier cargo would weigh ships down,
limiting the windows of opportunity to navigate the restricted channel. JAXPORT Authority Board Chairman David Kulik stated that the opening of the $300 million Hanjin Shipping Co. Ltd. Terminal at Dames Point could be delayed because the St. Johns River channel is not deep enough to handle the larger ships.

Currently, super-sized container ships from Asia unload on the Pacific coast, and goods are moved cross-country via train. The Panama Canal Authority is adding a third lane to the ocean-spanning waterway that will double its capacity and allow access to the world's largest cargo-carrying vessels. When completed in 2014, the Panama Canal expansion will allow the larger ships, which require up to 50 feet of water to accommodate maximum sailing loads, to enter the Caribbean. Most deep water ports along the east coast are 40 to 42 feet deep, so states from Florida to New York are looking to deepen their ports in time for the post-Panama canal expansion era.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has said, "At the end of the day, that means many, many more jobs here, and it means a lot more economic activity at the Port of Jacksonville."

"We've got to be prepared for [the post-Panama Canal expansion ships]," Gov. Rick Scott said recently. "Jacksonville, in particular, ought to be a big-time shipping capital for the country." With
port expansion as part of his job creation strategy, Scott added that if JAXPORT could attract more international trade, it could potentially triple its current staffing of 65,000. The Florida Chamber of Commerce estimates that better ports could add 143,000 jobs statewide.

Scott recently traveled with Paul Anderson, JAXPORT's chief executive officer, to Panama to discuss Florida ports and Panamax ships, pitching Florida's shipping virtues to countries expected to play increasingly larger roles in the world's economy.

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown recently told the Transportation Club of Jacksonville that JAXPORT is "the economic engine" of the area's economy. He has talked with Scott about job growth and
creation, specifically how it will stem from the Mile Point project.

"We caught the attention of the mayor," said Paul Stodola, project biologist. Recently, Lt. Col. Ballard C. (Clint) Barker and other key team members met with Mayor Brown to talk to him about the project. Once the [Mile Point] project is completed, "we get the bigger ships from Panama, more traffic and, in turn, more jobs in the area," the mayor said.

A non-profit group, "Bring the Noise," is also backing JAXPORT expansion, asking local, state and federal officials to make Jacksonville the "shipping capital of the U.S. East Coast." To date, they have collected approximately 6,000 letters from community members and business leaders.

Public Workshop highlights economic and environmental benefits

Jacksonville District held a public workshop August 15, 2011, with approximately 150 people attending, including representatives from the governor's and mayor's offices.

"The Mile Point fix is critical if the port wants to consider deepening. Without the Mile Point project the port will not be able to realize its economic potential," said Steve Ross, project manager.

The potential economic impact the shipping industry could bring to Jacksonville if the river channel is improved would be great. Potential environmental benefits are equally important. Up to 53 acres of wetlands would be restored with dredged material, saving money by restoring salt marsh areas.

"Great Marsh Island used to be one continuous island up until about 10 years ago," said Samantha Borer, planning lead for the Mile Point project. "Restoring the island to its original shape provides for beneficial use of dredged material through restoration of low and high
marsh. Restoration of Great Marsh Island is the least cost disposal alternative, saving the project approximately $9 million when compared to using an upland site," she added.

A flow improvement channel in Chicopit Bay would also be constructed, to offset the changes made to Great Marsh Island. The channel is proposed to be 80 feet wide, six feet deep and more than 3,600 feet long.

Public comments were received on the Mile Point recommended plan, project schedule, environmental impacts and other areas within the project scope. Reactions were largely positive.

The draft feasibility study is expected to be transmitted to Corps headquarters in October 2011 for review and preparation for the Civil Works Review Board. The final Chief of Engineers' Report is expected in March 2012, and is needed for securing authorization.

Funding challenge overcome

An August 2011 newspaper report indicated that JAXPORT had offered to contribute $35 to $40 million for the Mile Point project, but that "federal law must be changed to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accept non-federal dollars," according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. It was stated in the story that, "earmark appropriations, which elected officials use to get funding for projects in their jurisdictions, have been prohibited by the U.S. House of Representatives this year, so there's no way for Jacksonville's representatives in Washington to get the funding."

In a letter dated Sept. 14, 2011, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told Nelson that the Mile Point project may begin while the authorization process continues.

Boxer's letter said existing law allows JAXPORT, the project's nonfederal sponsor, to start work on the project and receive credit against the funds it expends. The Corps may also move forward with someproject work before receiving congressional authorization.