Obama's budget preserves $10 million for Port of Tampa

Miami and Savannah, Ga., ports seeking cash for hugely expensive channel-deepening projects got stiffed in President Obama's 2012 budget.

But the Port of Tampa's more modest request — nearly $10 million in annual funding for routine maintenance dredging and silt disposal — survived.

Major East Coast ports want to dig deeper shipping channels to attract larger vessels that will travel through a widened Panama Canal starting in 2014. Miami officials lobbied in Washington for $75 million to deepen its port to 50 feet. The port already has commitments of $17.5 million from the state and $120 million from Dade County.

At 43 feet, Tampa's main shipping channel is far too shallow to handle huge ships that will fit through the new canal and stop only at the largest U.S. ports.

But another project is under way. For the past decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has studied a project that would widen a 3.5-mile stretch of the shipping channel north of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from 500 to 600 feet. That would provide room for vessels to pass cruise ships and tankers carrying dangerous cargo such as anhydrous ammonia.

Port officials expect the corps studies will wrap up soon. Work on the $13 million project could start in 2013 "if everything falls into place," said John Thorington, Tampa Port Authority senior director of communications.

Separately, Tampa port officials are talking up a bill in the Legislature to ramp up the amount of money the state gives to Florida's 14 ports.

State Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, filed a bill that would require the state to spend at least $50 million a year on the ports starting in July 2013, up from the current minimum of $8 million.

Gov. Rick Scott has visited ports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville since his election in November.

"He has a real understanding of how important trade is to economic development," Tampa port director Richard Wainio said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8128.

Obama's budget preserves $10 million for Port of Tampa 02/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 8:30pm]

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