Hard decisions ahead on Florida port funding
Now that the state legislature has authorized funding for $50 million for port improvements — as opposed to the $110 million being sought by the member ports of the Florida Ports Council — state and local officials face some difficult decisions on which projects to fund with a more limited pool of money available.
Because any port improvement project receiving state funds requires a dollar-for-dollar match at the local level, the money approved by the legislature means there will be $100 million in port projects authorized this as a result of the legislative action. But individual ports will have to review their grant requests and possibly revise their priorities. Then all proposed projects must be reviewed by a trio of state agencies, and ultimately approved by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Florida Seaport Transportation Economic Development Council (FSTED), which will actually distribute the money.
'This is going to require some hard, very difficult decisions,' said Nancy Liekauf, executive vice president of the Florida Ports Council.
The legislature was appraised of a series of projects at 10 of the 14 commercial ports in the state, but the $50 million allocated in the state's general fund budget for ports does not specify exactly how that money will be spent.
The current process for providing state funding for ports goes back to 1990, when officials from the state and the ports opted to create a review process involving the Florida Department of Community Affairs, the FDOT, and the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, with final authorization coming from FSTED. The idea is to avoid the politicization of the process, with a cohesive and well-reasoned review by experts, instead of following the old system in which the ports with the most political clout got funding for standalone projects.
Ports that receive state funding do not get open-ended grants. Each port must propose specific projects that can be started that year, generate new jobs, and begin generating revenues back to the state.
'These have to be strong projects that can stand up to review, and the ports have to be serious because they will have to put up half the money,' Liekauf said.
She explained state officials are looking for projects that provide an immediate, tangible return in the form of new or expanded business.
Example of this year's applications include request for grant money to help pay for the new TraPac terminal being built for Mitsui O.S.K. Line at the Port of Jacksonville, container cranes at the Midport Terminal at Port Everglades, and a mobile crane for the Port of Panama City.
Port officials will be able to make their case at a public meeting with representatives from the reviewing state agencies on May 29 in Fort Lauderdale. That will be part of a series of meetings in Fort Lauderdale that will culminate May 31 with the formal selection of specific projects by FSTED.
Although individual ports are not yet assured of receiving any state funding, they are free to move forward with things like requests for proposals, so that projects can move forward quickly if the state provides funding.
While the money is theoretically authorized by the legislature for July 1, funds are not actually transferred through the FDOT and FSTED until September or October, at which time ports can sign contracts to set the projects in motion.