Congress needs to dig up the money to dig out the river
By Michael Lewis
This county would be screaming bloody murder if the Port of Miami were forced to operate at only half-capacity and for only part of the day even at that restricted level. Our economy would be hamstrung.
Yet that's precisely what's happening at Florida's fourth-busiest seaport, the adjacent port of the Miami River. We need all hands on deck to rev up the river's economic engine to full capacity.
The 5.5-mile Miami River isn't formally a seaport, but it acts as one, with 26 privately owned shipping terminals handling cargo on vessels that serve more than 100 Caribbean ports.
While the river's ships are far less imposing than the massive freighters at the Port of Miami, they serve the Caribbean on one hand and lubricate trade and shipping that are vital to Miami's economic health on the other. Scrap metal and bicycles on river ships aren't as neat as row upon row of cargo containers at the Port of Miami, but it's all part of Miami's economic mix.
River shipping, however, is being torpedoed by the changes in the channel. Over the 70 years since it was last dredged, flows of sediment coupled with the dumping into the river of everything from old cars to bowling balls reduced that depth from 15 feet to 9-11 feet. That means cargo vessels can load only to about half of capacity along the river — and even then proceed safely only at high tide. That chokes off both river traffic and business.
A consortium of governments set out in 2004 to solve the problem by dredging the river back to its 15-foot depth. But the five-year project, about 40% completed, is now dead in the water because federal funding has dried up. The last $26 million is mission in action.
So the other partners — Miami-Dade County, the City of Miami, the state and the Inland Navigation District — have decided to go back to work on dredging this May, spending their last available $7 million while awaiting a $26 million federal bailout to complete the $74 million job. Good for them — it's needed.
Meanwhile, US Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, have joined forces to seek the remaining $26 million from Congress to finish the job. Bipartisanship may pay big dividends.
It had better. The 40% of the work that's finished is at the head of the river. That means virtually no good will come of it unless the river is dredged all the way to its mouth on Biscayne Bay because shipping loads cannot be increased or 24-hour ship passage made possible.
Work began upstream because the sediments that dredging dislodges flow to the mouth. If work had started at the mouth, later dredging would have started to fill in the riverbed once again.
The sediment flows are enormous. A study says 40,000 tons flow from the river into Biscayne Bay over a decade. And those sediments, which the dredging would remove, are polluting the bay.
Besides cutting pollution and speeding shipping, dredging will benefit tourism and residential developments along the river. It could also permit the servicing of mega-yachts — the 80-foot-plus vessels that Miami seeks to attract with developments such as mega-yacht docking at a planned hotel complex on Watson Island. A 2003 study estimated that one mega-yacht carrying five passengers would generate $385,000 here in a week's stay, and servicing it averages more than $100,000 a shot.
Indeed, a federal study sees a total benefit to Miami from dredging of more than $100 million over a 20-year period.
Great news. But first, we must finish the work before a five-year contract expires in April 2009.
The other governments involved are talking of digging up the missing $26 million if the federal government fails to come through — and that local impetus would be vital because the dredging is so essential.
But federal expenditures on a key waterway shouldn't be in doubt. If the county-operated Port of Miami were involved, the $26 million would be here now.
Congress needs to understand that a port with no government infrastructure that serves the Caribbean cannot be ignored either — or hamstrung. All involved must keep up the pressure on Congress to make it happen — very soon.