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Taylor

Port may manage Mile Point project

By Carole Hawkins, Contributing Writer

The Port of Jacksonville may take over the Mile Point project, a fix to dangerous cross currents in its shipping channel, if Congress doesn't pass an infrastructure bill by January.

"We can't afford to simply stop this process," JaxPort CEO Brian Taylor said Monday. "We've got customers who are looking for us to ensure we will keep our projects on schedule."

The JaxPort board on Monday pledged to fund the engineering design costs, $7.2 million, to deepen the channel to 47 feet.

The U.S. House and Senate this year passed two separate bills authorizing improvements to waterways nationwide and must now reconcile them in a congressional conference committee.

Both versions include the fix for Mile Point. The Senate version authorizes the JaxPort deepening project, but the House version does not.

Now JaxPort leaders say it's unlikely the committee will reach a compromise with the water bills by year's end.

At Mile Point, dangerous cross currents in the St. Johns River prevent the largest cargo ships from passing for two-thirds of the day. If the port waits much longer, the Mile Point project won't be done by the time the Panama Canal expansion is completed, Taylor said.

"We really have a requirement, I believe, to complete this project by the end of 2015, to make sure this ….navigation impediment is removed, because there is going to be an increased frequency of bigger ships," he said.

The federal government usually funds and performs waterway construction work through the Army Corps of Engineers. But Congress hasn't passed the vehicle to authorize such work, the Water Resources and Development Act, for seven years.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott pledged $36 million in state money toward the Mile Point fix. But without the water act, JaxPort could be forced to manage the project itself.

"Supervising an engineering project is not our core competency," Taylor said. "But, if we don't see meaningful progress by the end of January, then we're going to have to evaluate another option."

The Corps of Engineers will finish a study on JaxPort's deepening project in April. But, under the House's version of the act, only projects that have studies completed at the time a bill is signed into law are authorized.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the conference committee's ranking Democrat, now favors adding the JaxPort project to the bill, said Eric Green, senior director of government and community outreach at the port. Rahall, a West Virginia congressman, visited Jacksonville this month.

"He said it would be shameful to get that close and not have a project as important to the country as JaxPort's deepening included," Green said.

With the board's approval, JaxPort can legally fund the design of the project and possibly be reimbursed, said port Chief Operating Officer Chris Kauffmann. Normally, the federal government pays 75 percent of the design cost for such projects.

JaxPort Chief Financial Officer Mike Poole said the extra cost for the work would be funded from the port's credit line.

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