After 17 years bogged down in Washington bureaucracy, Port Everglades has passed a major milestone in its effort to excavate mud and sand from its channel to enable passage by much larger cargo vessels.
On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers released draft reports on the feasibility and environmental impact of dredging Port Everglades'
navigation channels from 42 to 48 feet. The public now has 45 days to submit comments on the proposed project before a final report is completed.
In addition to deepening, the $313 million project will also widen the channel entrance so cargo ships can safely pass cruise ships docked along the Intracoastal Waterway inside the port. Dredging is expected to go to 50 feet because the process allows for two feet of additional buffer room.
Next generation tankers and container vessels require 50 feet of draft to safely travel fully loaded. Carriers, which operate on tight margins, lose revenue when they can't fill their vessels all the way. Ports along the U.S. East and Gulf coasts are scrambling to deepen their access channels and berths to attract the larger vessels, more of which will be able to reach this part of the country in 2015 when the widening of the Panama Canal is completed.
The Florida port is in a race to get necessary studies completed, so it can get congressional authorization to proceed with construction. The approvals are contained in the Water Resources Development Act. Congress typically sets policy direction for environmental, recreational and navigational needs every two or three years, but renewals have taken seven years each of the last two rounds. The Senate passed a WRDA bill this spring and the House is expected to put together its version of the bill later this summer or fall, although whether the fractured body will be able to pass a bill is uncertain. If the Port Everglades dredging is not included on the list of authorized projects it faces the possibility of another seven-year delay before it gets the go-ahead. Port officials would still have to go through the appropriations process to get funding, which can be strung out over many years and is not guaranteed given the federal government's fiscal constraints.
Late last year, Port Everglades received unwelcome news that the Corps of Engineers had failed to apply new methodology for measuring the economic impact of a project in its feasibility study and needed more time to recalculate its figures after 12 years of work and $13 million of Corps and port funding. The study was first authorized in 1996. That set off of a full-court press by Broward County officials and the state's congressional delegation to get the study, now in its fourth version, on the Corps' fast track.
"Waiting another five or six years would put Port Everglades at a severe disadvantage," Port Director Steve Cernak said in an interview.
The only upside to the lengthy study period, he said, is that the Corps has been able to minimize the environmental impacts and overall cost of dredging by reducing the project's footprint.
Engineers realized that some areas of the channel did not need to be as wide as originally assumed because the bottom is relatively stable and the sides of the deepening could be dug at a steeper grade, he explained.
The Corps must complete the feasibility report, known as a Chief's Report
, before Congress can authorize the project. The agency has indicated it can finish the Chief's Report
by the end of the year. Cernak said county and state officials hope Congress will grant the project contingent authorization if a WRDA bill is enacted before then, as long as the study is completed by year's end.
The local share of the project will be covered by port user fees and possibly a contribution from the state of Florida, Everglades said in a statement. Gov. Rick Scott has directed $77 million of state money to cover the federal share of deepening the Port of Miami after Congress failed to appropriate any money for the job and in January committed $36 million to clear a navigation obstacle on the St. John's River near the Port of Jacksonville.
Port Everglades is also deepening and adding new berths and building an on-dock intermodal facility to efficiently handle transfers of containers to and from freight trains. Local officials say the deepening is critical for Fort Lauderdale and Broward County's economic development, creating 7,000 new jobs and another 135,000 statewide when at full capacity in 2027. The ability of local sponsors to evaluate alternative financing and make related infrastructure investments is constrained as long as the project remains in limbo, Cernak said.
Everglades should get funding priority, he said, because users donate $11.3 million per year to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund from an excise tax on cargo and cruise passengers, while the port only requires $300,000 per year in operations and maintenance support from the Corps.
Public meetings are scheduled for July 23 at 1-3 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center. Official comments may be submitted to Corps Project Director Terri Jordan-Sellers by email
. - Eric Kulisch