The Port to Nowhere

May 13, 2014 40 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

A new lawsuit questions the economic potential of proposed JaxPort expansion.

There is a major race happening up and down the East Coast, and there are some in Jacksonville who are fighting to put the First Coast at the center of the mayhem. The race is to accommodate the continually growing cargo-ships that are transporting goods across the world.

Last week in Jacksonville a lawsuit was officially filed against JaxPort over the proposed dredging of the St. Johns River. This lawsuit has added coals to the already strong fire surrounding the controversy around the planned port expansion project. While opposed early-on for environmental purposes, the project is now receiving criticism over questionable financing. Namely, how much is the project going to cost, and who exactly will be paying for it?

The Public Trust Environmental  Legal Institute is behind the newest lawsuit, but the criticisms are coming from corners outside of the environmental community. Jaxport is proposing to deepen the St. Johns River by just several feet. However, to accomplish this, the project will require a massive tax-payer-funded project that will top $700 million dollars—about half from Duval taxpayers.  

The widening of the Panama Canal will permit cargo ships up to three-times the size of the current average vessel to pass through to the East Coast, and this means that ports from Florida to New York must be ready to receive those ships.  To allow the largest ships out of China and Japan into port, the waterways need to be at least 50 feet deep. On the East Coast, many ports are at least five feet too shallow to accommodate these ships at the moment. This is what has prompted the race for expansion across the east coast.

Unfortunately, the process of expanding a port is much more complicated than digging out a few feet of dirt. Expanding a port, even by just one or two feet, will take years and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish.

JaxPort saw the introduction of larger cargo ships on the East Coast as a business opportunity, and has been promising jobs and economic prosperity to the city if we would just allow them to dredge the St. John’s River. Their argument is that by expanding the port here on the First Coast we could see those new grand ships docking right here in town. To pull it off, we just need to front them a little bit of up-front cash.

While dredging the St. John’s River might sound like an easy enough plan in theory, the project is costly and the economic benefits are questionable.

To accommodate the port expansion the St. John’s will need to be dredged and widened, bridges will have to be adjusted and existing ports will require additional infrastructure to support the new ships. JaxPort has proposed that this will cost $700 Million. However, no officially validated breakdown of what this figure consists of has been released as of yet.

According to Martin Associates, the expansion project will create 64,000 jobs in Jacksonville. What isn’t clear in this number is that this figure includes direct and in-direct job growth, accounting for 1.8 billion dollars in revenue. Still not clear is what those jobs are, if they will be long term and when those economic benefits may set in. What is clear is that the 700 million dollars in up-front funding that would be necessary for the port expansion to happen would be funded largely by the burden of Jacksonville residents, whose property taxes would have to increase for this project to take place.

While talk of 1.8 billion dollars in revenue and 64,000 jobs are impressive numbers, it is important to recall that they are projected and are based on the assumption of obtaining the business of the largest cargo ships. This is what the race for expansion refers to. The cargo ships need somewhere to go, yes, but they won’t be going everywhere. There will still be the current sized cargo ships out on the sea, and there is no need to cause damage to the St. John’s River and cost the city of Jacksonville hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain that business. What is more, there is no guarantee that expanding the port will actually bring in the business that JaxPort is projecting.

Of existing ports in the United States, Jacksonville ranks 19th based on port capacity. On the Eastern seaboard, JaxPort is 11th in size, with 10 other ports ranking higher in TEU capacity. This includes two other ports in Florida, including Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale and Port of Miami, as well as the Port of Savannah. In fact, the Port of Savannah is currently one of the top five largest ports in all of the United States and is an active player in the race for expansion.  

However, each of these other Southeast regional ports is experiencing similar issues to that faced by JaxPort. The potential for bringing in these mega-ships just isn’t there. To attract the largest ships that are anticipated to reach the East Coast from China or Japan following the opening of the Panama Canal expansion the port needs to be at least 50 feet deep. The bottom line is that our waters are just too shallow, and reaching 50 feet is not possible.

The 700 million dollars that JaxPort plans to invest into this project would allow our port to reach 47 feet, maximum. That is several feet deeper than it is now, but a rather large three feet too-short to make the economic impact that a full expansion might bring.  Savannah, Charleston and the port of Miami are all in the same boat as Jacksonville, and are also pursuing expansion options. No other port has made it farther than the planning phases as of yet, as there are many serious questions as to the true economic impact the project will have.

Having a large-scale conversation about job growth in Jacksonville is great for the First Coast, but while having that conversation it is not wise to set aside legitimate environmental and economic concerns in the interest of taking action and being the first to embark on a massive project. The port expansion will take years to complete, and it will not be certain how much the entire project will cost until that expansion is well underway.

Without the potential to dredge to the 50 foot depth that is necessary for the largest ships, it has to be asked whether this project holds the potential for job growth that advocates are quoting, or if it would be in the best interest of the First Coast to seek investments elsewhere—such as into projects that have fewer direct environmental and economic consequences.

Article by: Jessica Fessenden of the Sierra Club Northeast Group