Miami's effort to deep dredge its port to accommodate mega-vessels got a major boost Friday when Gov. Rick Scott said the state will contribute $77 million to the project.
Scott said he has directed the state Department of Transportation to change its work plan to account for the money "so that Florida can take another leap forward in international trade."
The announcement came the same day Scott rejected the Obama administration's offer of $2.4 billion for high-speed rail in the state and, in prepared remarks, Scott suggested there were a "number of worthy infrastructure projects that deserve our attention, and as Floridians, we know best where our resources should be focused."
Scott's surprise morning announcement at the Port of Miami competed with the scheduled visit of President Barack Obama, who arrived in Miami on Friday afternoon to promote education reform with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush at Miami's Central High School.
Scott called dredging the port to a depth of 50 feet, "the type of infrastructure project that will pay permanent, long-term dividends and provide a solid return on investment for Florida's taxpayers."
It's still not a done deal. The Florida Legislature must still approve the money, though Scott seemed confident that would happen.
Miami-Dade — and ports along the East Coast — have been pressing for money to make their ports deeper to accommodate the "post-Panamax" ships that will begin moving cargo once expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014. The new super ships are higher, wider and heavier than current container ships and need a channel at least 50 feet deep. Port of Tampa's main shipping channel, for example, is far too shallow at 43 feet.
By 2014, it's estimated that about two-thirds of container ship capacity will be post-Panamax, and the Port of Miami argues that dredging will enable the port to double its cargo business by 2020.
The state had already chipped in $17.5 million, and the county $120 million for the project.
Port officials had launched an aggressive federal lobbying effort to secure the last of the money in a congressional earmark but were thwarted when Congress began to reject such spending. They pitched Scott in December.
Port director Bill Johnson worked the Obama administration for the money, but critics noted that every port on the East Coast had sought federal dollars for port dredging. The administration's proposed budget does not include money for any East Coast port dredge project. But the Port of Tampa's more modest request — nearly $10 million in annual funding for routine maintenance dredging and silt disposal — survived.
Johnson said he got the news that the "deep dredge'' was "a go'' over breakfast when Scott called about 45 minutes before he made the announcement.
"I lifted off my chair by about 5 feet,'' Johnson said. "I was at a loss for words for once in my life.''
The project has congressional authorization, and Johnson said he plans to be in Washington next week for meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the project. He said the port hopes to begin dredging by summer of 2012.
The Legislature must agree to transfer the money, but Scott said Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon are "both supportive."
Cannon called ports "vital to the economic future of our state" and said in a statement that he looked forward to working with Scott on the proposal.
Not everyone was enthusiastic.
The Sierra Club noted the blasting required for the dredge will be "highly disruptive to fishing, recreational sports, sea grass beds … and threatened animals." And Jonathan Ullman, director of the Miami Office of the Sierra Club, noted that other ports are dredging to accommodate the ships "so it is not clear the boon of new commerce claimed by Gov. Scott will ever arrive."
On the East Coast, Johnson said only the port in Norfolk, Va., can accommodate post-Panamax ships. Savannah, Ga., a chief competitor for Miami, also is pushing to deep dredge.
Asaf Ashar, head of the National Ports and Waterways Institute's Washington, D.C., office, suggested the expected benefit could be more modest than county officials estimate. Scott and county officials predict the dredge would create 30,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
But Ashar noted that Miami's viability may be limited by its geography — at the bottom of the state — and far from major rail lines that could take goods elsewhere.
"It will not change dramatically the competitive position of the Port of Miami," Ashar said.
But James Hertwig, president and CEO of the port's rail provider, Florida East Coast Railway, hailed the decision. He said East Coast would "be able to provide overnight service throughout Florida and second/third morning service throughout the Southeast U.S."
Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.