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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Apr. 24, 201212:00 PM EST

Port might pursue Mile Point fix without federal money

by: Joe Wilhelm Jr.

The Jacksonville Port Authority, which is waiting for federal funds to improve the shipping channel at Mile Point, might start discussing tapping into private equity to complete the project.

“We continue to aggressively, proactively pursue this project. We are not relying on the (congressional) process. We are making up new processes to try and find alternate ways to make this happen,” said port CEO Paul Anderson.

“We would be dead in the water if we just left it alone to the process because we would be stymied by the current, ongoing engineering and design,” he said.

The project is designed to improve the flow of the St. Johns River at Mile Point, where the cross-currents of the Intracoastal Waterway and St. Johns River pose navigational hindrances for deep draft vessels during certain tidal conditions.

The conditions limit shipping traffic to two four-hour windows daily and the proposed fix would expand those windows by two more hours a day.

The project is estimated to cost about $40 million.

The latest delay in the project has come in the preparation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief Engineer’s report, said Chris Kauffmann, chief operating officer at the port.

He said the report is sent to the U.S. Congress and President Obama’s staff for review before it begins the authorization and appropriation process. He said it was expected to be sent by April and it is still with the Corps.

“This needs to be done. It’s not stopping our design, but it will eventually affect federal authorization down the road,” said Kauffmann. “It’s going to happen. It’s just getting through all the bureaucracy.”

The board had begun to talk in March about not relying on the government process to complete the project.

“Last meeting we talked a little about private equity. If you look at the benefits here, you wonder if there’s not some room to be creative through the private sector in terms of financing and payback,” said board member John Anderson.

CEO Paul Anderson explained that the private sector is looking favorably on the port.

“I wouldn’t put all my cards on the table, but we have some really good opportunities, and this board may have to do risk analysis of moving forward with or without U.S. Congress’ approval for this project and that’s a possibility. I think it’s too critical to Northeast Florida and too critical to this port for us to just wait for Congress,” he said.

“I can assure you the private equity world is extremely interested in JaxPort. The problem with private equity firms as you know, they shy away from anything under $100 million. They like to see double-digit returns on their investment. We will continue to keep the board apprised as we have those meetings,” he said.

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