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Jacksonville deepening project could be done early

JAXPORT leaders at the annual State of the Port address report work may be completed two years ahead of the original schedule.

   The Jacksonville Harbor deepening project could be completed in 2023 — two years ahead of the original schedule — if the current level of funding continues, JAXPORT CEO Eric Green said Thursday.
   “I’m here to say today if our funding continues at the pace that we see we will have a photo finish and possibly beat our competitors to the north,” said Green, who was one of five JAXPORT leaders who spoke at the State of the Port event. The ports of Savannah and Charleston also currently are undergoing expansion projects.
   The $484 million project, which commenced in February 2018 to deepen the federal river channel to 47 feet, has received almost $50 million from the federal government and a commitment for another $46 million, said CFO Beth McCague.
   The state of Florida also has put in $35 million, McCague said, and has committed to additional funding for the next five years.
   Green teased a “huge announcement” on March 4 that will involve the terms of an agreement for tenants to help pay for the cost of the project’s next phase, according to The Florida Times-Union. Combined with state and federal funding, the tenant money would be enough to cover the 2.5-mile section without seeking funding from the city of Jacksonville, according to the report.
   “We are in very good shape at this point in the funding and feel confident as we move forward every year toward the conclusion of the project that our partnerships with these important financing will continue to be forthcoming,” McCague said.
   The port already has started preparing its premises for the deepening, she said, with new equipment and rehabilitated berths. The port rehabilitated one berth last year for $50 million, $37.5 million of which was paid for by the state of Florida, and it is currently rehabilitating two additional berths on Blount Island.
   JAXPORT moved 10.5 tons of cargo in its fiscal year 2018, a 30 percent increase over five years, and handled more than 1.2 million TEUs, a 37 percent growth over the same time span. A vessel with an 11,000-TEU capacity, which would be the largest in the port’s history, is tentatively scheduled to call at the port the morning of March 10.
   COO Fred Wong said the port has changed its facility security plan regarding how traffic moves in and out of Blount Island, which handles both domestic and international containers, auto and ro/ro. Creating a restricted area helped the flow of cargo, but the port also is looking into utilizing technology to continue fighting congestion.
   “We’re really delving in and we’re going to need our port partners, our tenants, our stakeholders to be with us on this, to be open-minded as far as where we want to be in the future with technology,” Wong said.
   Most of JAXPORT’s growth has come from transpacific business, Green said, and Asian container volumes reached a record 429,000 TEUs in the 2018 fiscal year. Volumes from Puerto Rico also were up 37 percent, which included relief supplies to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria, he said.
   “Puerto Rico is part of our DNA as JAXPORT, as Jacksonville,” CCO Kristen DeMarco said. “We hold it near and dear to our heart and we’re absolutely committed to it in the long run.”
   Still, the port would like to improve its transatlantic business and connect with emerging European markets, DeMarco said.
   “You’ve got close to 300,000 TEUs a year that are entering Northeast Florida that are coming from other ports. We don’t like that very much and we know we can capitalize on it very well,” DeMarco said. “We’re working really hard as an organization to make sure we’re reaching all the touch points within the carriers so that from headquarters to regional offices it’s crystal clear on the growth trajectory that this region is on.”