If Jacksonville’s port is to remain competitive, it must not turn away from all the opportunities before it.

 

That means deepening the port, as has been done for over 100 years.

Ships are getting bigger.

With federal and state help, Jacksonville is on the way to funding a necessary port deepening plan.

The critics are widespread.

But the history of progress in this country is replete with naysayers

Like the skeptics who called the Dames Point Bridge a “bridge to nowhere.”

Or the “black hats” who 50 years ago sought to retain the status quo and keep intact a corrupt city government and an underperforming county government.

The voices of the business community and those who are involved in the port need to be heeded.

They know the value of a deeper channel.

Jacksonville’s port is a lifeline for this economy.

We must go forward.

This is no time to take a backward step.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

The economic impact has been questioned by several experts, but we are more impressed by facts provided by JaxPort. We should not allow the wave of cynicism and skepticism that aims to torpedo the dredging project to diminish this reality:

Deepening the harbor, by any objective measure, will have a significant and positive impact on Jacksonville’s and Florida’s economies.

• According to data produced for the Florida Department of Transportation, every dollar invested in the deepening will return $16 to $24 to the state’s economy.

JaxPort is likely to be at the high end of that ratio, given its growing stake in the Asian trade market — which has increased by 57 percent in a five-year period.

There are commitments from customers to bring in more cargo on bigger ships once JaxPort has a deeper harbor capable of handling them.

• According to the most recent estimates, JaxPort supports some 130,000 jobs in Northeast Florida — more than 24,000 directly in Jacksonville — and it’s realistically estimated that 15,000-plus new jobs will be created by the dredging.

That’s a conservative estimate.

And that means more than 15,000 new people who are making a living in our area — and pumping money for homes, apartments, groceries, clothing, medical care, entertainment and other areas into our economy.

• Among the local industries and facilities that directly or indirectly benefit from JaxPort include: trucking, warehousing, distribution centers, manufacturing, supply chain management, retail, rail transportation, freight forwarding, transportation service providers and vocational programs.

All of them will reap the economic advantages of a JaxPort that boasts a deeper harbor that attracts larger ships and increased volumes of cargo.

A more prosperous JaxPort will also increase the level of intangible benefits for our community — namely, by providing opportunities and hope for local residents who might otherwise lack either.

JaxPort already has a successful partnership with Operation New Hope on a Port Academy program that is training non-violent past offenders to re-enter the workforce and helping them obtain jobs with port tenants who need employees.

Meanwhile, Local 1408 of the International Longshoremen’s Association — which represents some 1,200 workers employed at JaxPort — recently awarded $48,000 in scholarships to local students.

Since 1995, the union has provided well over a half-million dollars in scholarship money to youths (many of whom are the first in their families to attend college).

Now envision the additional ripples of hope and opportunity that will result from a JaxPort that is even more active and competitive because of a deeper harbor.

PROTECT THE RIVER

However, we are uncomfortable with the minimal amount of mitigation included in the deepening project.

An earlier proposal to support opening the Rodman dam and infusing fresh water into the St. Johns River ran into a hurricane of political opposition from Putnam County.

And in all fairness, the opponents of breaching the dam had a point.

Just what impact would that have had on the river? And how would that compare to other projects to improve the St. Johns?

Would $1 spent on breaching Rodman dam compare to $1 spent to replace failing septic tanks that dump into tributaries?

The city needs a cost-benefit analysis for improving the St. Johns River.

This ought to be the first goal of a renewed River Accord first established by Mayor John Peyton.

Population growth alone is stressing the river; there are twice as many people in the region than 50 years ago.

Sea level rise will put more stress on the river. And the occasional toxic algae blooms are clear warning signs.

Along with a revived River Accord, the city should examine other ways to protect the river from possible damaging effects of dredging.

One possibility would be identification of a funding stream to pay for mitigation. Another possibility would be a performance bond that would be tapped only if dredging causes damage to the river.

The Florida Legislature should be pressed to consider the health of Florida’s longest river as just as important to Central and Northeast Florida as the Everglades is to South Florida.

Grants could be available if a local focus were established. But if you never look for the grant money, you will never find it.

The St. Johns River is an economic driver for the region and a key to our quality of life.

We must foster and protect the river’s value to our economy — and to our quality of life.