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Lawmaker jump-starts dredging project

A year ago, Mayor David Fischer led a small group to the office of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

They wanted federal help to get Bayboro Harbor dredged deep enough to accommodate small cruise ships. Fischer went to Young's office knowing that getting the money can take years; the permits can take longer.

But owing to his clout as the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Young, a Pinellas County Republican, was able to cut through mounds of bureaucracy. The dredging project will go out for bids in April and begin in August.

"He's very big on the harbor," Fischer said of Young.

Young is also very big on the Coast Guard.

As a result, four more Coast Guard cutters will soon call Bayboro Harbor home.

"The Coast Guard doesn't have that many facilities in the U.S., so they really don't have a natural constituency in Congress," Young said Monday. "But they've had a presence in Pinellas for years, so we've worked together on a number of projects. Now I sit down with them and try to help them work through their budget issues."

It was during appropriations hearings last year that he suggested to Coast Guard Commandant James M. Loy "that they consider taking an even more aggressive stance toward drug interdiction in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the southern Atlantic."

To that end, four 110-foot Island-class cutters and 76 crew members and support personnel are coming to St. Petersburg, with the first one arriving perhaps by July. The others should arrive in one-month intervals.

To accommodate the new arrivals, the Coast Guard will pay for an estimated $265,000 worth of ship utilities hookups along the city-owned wharf area. As part of a three-year lease agreement for the space, the Coast Guard will pay the city $87,600 the first year, $91,980 the second and $91,980 the third.

David Metz, the city's port and marina director, calculated that the 76 new residents, the crews of the cutters, will have a $1.3-million direct economic value to the city.

The four patrol vessels, built in the late 1980s, join the three 210-foot cutters, buoy tender and maintenance craft already assigned to St. Petersburg.

The port's relative shallowness has been an issue for years as several small cruise ships tried to make St. Petersburg their home.

Dredging should get under way by August and be completed within 90 days, Metz said. Plans call for the dredged material to be dumped along the west side of Egmont Key, where erosion has been leaving historic military sites exposed.

City officials said they expect that the Russian submarine and the idled gambling ship that have been moored will find new owners and be moved by the time dredging begins.

When finished, the port should have a uniform depth of 23 feet with an additional foot of "over dredging" to help prevent silting. The deeper east-west channel leading to the port will also be dredged to a 24-foot depth, while the smaller north-south channel will be dredged 19 feet deep.

"I think this could really give the port a boost," Metz said. With just three upland acres, St. Petersburg's port is both the smallest and the shallowest of the 14 state-certified ports in Florida.

The city has tried to lure smaller cruise ships to home port or make regular stops here, with dwindling success. The threat of grounding is an issue.

"The Corps has been very cooperative, and they've been able to turn this project around very quickly," Young said. "I think that the Corps knew that I was going to be able to produce the money, so that gave them a chance to get a lot of the preliminary work out of the way, allowing them to move out smartly on it."

Fischer said Young is so keen on the port "because he really believes in USF, the marine science program and what they're doing at the harbor."

And Young said the Coast Guard is keen on St. Petersburg. He noted that Loy, the Coast Guard commandant, attended when the new port security unit and a new buoy tender were put into service here last year.

"He was impressed with their facilities there, and he really likes St. Petersburg," Young said of Loy. "He understands how quickly the cutters could get into the open waters of the Gulf from there. He's very satisfied with the operation of Group St. Pete, with the operation of the biggest Coast Guard air station in the world" at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.