What a 47-foot Deep Port Means to You

On Oct. 22, the House of Representatives killed almost any hope of dredging the St. Johns River to 47 feet. Most people in Jacksonville don’t appreciate the significance of that action. They should understand what a 47-foot port means.

If you’re a parent, like I am, you want your children to grow up, go to college, and return to Jacksonville to find a good job and raise their children here. I want to be able to see my children without traveling somewhere else, and I want to see my grandchildren. Without a 47-foot port, that’s unlikely to happen. Why? Because the jobs wont be here.

For a city to thrive it needs to produce things which are useful to other cities or communities throughout the nation. Jacksonville produces health and title insurance, medical care and other services, but these are businesses that can pick up and move at a moment’s notice. The Navy has already picked up and moved — we just refuse to acknowledge that they are going. Transportation and logistics are two services Jacksonville provides that are tied to its location. Transportation and logistics can provide good paying jobs for your children so they can stay in Jacksonville.

In 2015, the new Panama Canal will open. The depth of ships, known as “the draft,” coming from the Far East will increase to 47 feet, and Jacksonville’s 40-foot channel won’t be able to handle them. Just like a new highway draws traffic away from smaller roads, the new Panama Canal will cause the cargo which now comes to Jacksonville to go to Miami, Charleston and Savannah. The 43,000 jobs created by JaxPort will go away as well. Jacksonville is on the path to a downward economic cycle.

In the transportation business, you’re either thriving or you’re dying. This is not just idle doomsaying. At one time, the two largest ports in Florida were Fernandina Beach and Cedar Key. A railroad linked the two ports, and they were the fastest and cheapest route for the transportation of cargo from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast and back again. Where are those ports today? Cedar Key isn’t even a port anymore. Fernandina’s current importance pales in comparison to what it once was. The railroad that linked the two ports has disappeared. Once there is a faster and cheaper way to transport cargo, the cargo will seek that faster and cheaper route. When the ships go someplace else, so will the transportation jobs we currently have.

Jobs in the transportation and logistics industries pay well. If you are in college today, these are the types of jobs you want. Even more importantly, transportation attracts industry, which also produces high-paying jobs. Free trade zones permit goods to be reworked close to ports and shipped out again to the Caribbean and South America. Refrigerated warehouses permit frozen goods to be stored for shipment to Russia and Eastern Europe. Businesses locate around ports, and the bigger and more efficient the port, the more businesses will locate here.

Take the Miami International Airport as an example. When the airport was built, did anyone have any idea that someday it would be the largest port for the importation of cut fresh flowers? All those bouquets you buy at Costco, Publix and Winn-Dixie enter the United States by airplane into Miami where they are repackaged and shipped to retailers throughout the nation. You can’t always predict what businesses will come because of a good port, but just like in “Field of Dreams,” “if you build it, they will come.”

There are two solutions to the deep channel problem.

Having painted a rather gloomy picture of Jacksonville’s future without a 47-foot channel, I want you to understand that there is a solution — however, it requires you to think “outside the box.” The “box” here involves the U.S. Navy and Mayport Naval Station.

Have you ever been jilted by a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse? It hurts. For years, Jacksonville and the Navy have been in that type of relationship. Jacksonville loved the Navy, and the Navy, at least at one time, loved Jacksonville. However, Jacksonville has been jilted. It’s no one’s fault, it is just that we’ve grown apart. The theater for the Navy has shifted to the Pacific Ocean. The Navy no longer needs Jacksonville as a home port for a carrier battle group, and if the Navy doesn’t need Jacksonville for an aircraft carrier, it no longer needs the 45-foot deep carrier basin at Mayport Naval Station. It sits there idle and waiting — waiting for a higher and better use.

What does the Navy need? It needs space for 14 shallow draft Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), each with a crew of about 100 sailors and 1,700 shoreside support personnel — a total of about 3,400 people. Littoral Support Ships have a draft of only 14 feet, meaning that the Mayport Naval Station turning basin is 31 feet deeper than the Navy needs. While the Mayport Naval Station is way too deep for the needs of the LCSs, it is perfect for the needs of the new, deeper-draft ships that will come to the East Coast after the opening of the new Panama Canal.

What else does the Navy need? It needs about 5,600 linear feet of dock space. Each LCS needs about 400 feet to dock alongside the shoreline. Docking alongside a pier is more efficient for maintenance and repairs, for crew boarding and for the ability to get underway quickly. If Littoral Combat Ships do not rest against the dock, they need to be nested alongside other LCSs. Nested vessels are more susceptible to natural disasters and terrorist attack, are more difficult to reach with shoreside cranes, and cannot get underway as quickly as ships resting against a pier.

So, is there a solution? There is. It is Talleyrand Docks & Terminal.

Talleyrand Docks & Terminal has 4,800 feet of linear pier space with 40 feet of water alongside meaning that 12 LCSs could be alongside the pier at any one time. Further, the LCSs would be physically closer to Jacksonville Naval Air Station for the ships’ air detachments. In short, JaxPort and the Navy should swap.

What is the advantage to the city of Jacksonville in asking the Navy to move to Talleyrand? The land to the shoreside of Talleyrand is a blighted area. Formerly used for industrial purposes, it is now underutilized. However, in the hands of the Navy, there would be space for new warehouses, SIMAs (Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activities), and the other multiple support buildings, which the LCSs will require — because experience has shown that they need a lot of maintenance.

Next, there is the matter of housing. New base housing near Talleyrand Docks & Terminal would move people into the Downtown area fulfilling the long-term goal of revitalizing Downtown Jacksonville. The Navy would get a higher profile in the community by being more visible than it currently is at Mayport.

If you are an environmentalist, you win in a number of ways. First, bigger ships are better for the environment because they produce less carbon dioxide per ton of cargo. Second, bringing those bigger ships into Mayport would do away with the need to dredge the 6 miles of the St. Johns River between Mayport and the Dames Point bridge, and it might reduce the need to dredge at Mile Point. Third, to the extent that the areas west of Talleyrand are brownfield sites, they would be cleaned up as part of the development of the new Naval base at Talleyrand.

How would JaxPort manage such a big move?

JaxPort has some of the biggest and most advanced container cranes in the world at the TraPac terminal, which without dredging will be underutilized. They can be moved by barge without disassembly to Mayport. The underutilized air strip at Mayport is already hardened for handling heavy loads and would make a good container yard — without potholes or questions about the longevity of the substrate.

The current TraPac terminal could become the new location for the coming trade between the United States and Cuba. It is bigger, more open and closer to the sea.

So, are you willing to think outside the box?

Like any jilted lover, at times it is necessary to let go of the past and embrace a new and uncertain future. Change is scary. Change is unsettling. However, this change can likely be accomplished for less than the $1 billion ($700 million plus unanticipated costs) we were thinking of spending to dredge the river from the Dames Point bridge to the sea. Can you let go of the past? Can Jacksonville?

Sullivan is director of programs and an associate professor of law at Florida Coastal School of Law.


april, 2022