Leaders turn desires to port dredging as needed tie-in with tunnels' impact
By Risa Polansky
With construction on hard-fought tunnels to the Port of Miami under way, local leaders have turned their attention to dredging, another project considered crucial to Miami's future as a cargo hub — and one they say could require just as big a collective push as the clock ticks toward a fiscal 2012 deadline for federal funding.
Deepening the channel to the seaport to make way for larger ships and potentially double cargo volume has been on the books since 2007, when Congress gave the go-ahead, but not the money, to make it happen.
Since, port leaders and others have consistently but relatively quietly lobbied for the needed $75 million in federal dollars, the pledged match for the total $150 million project.
The port is to finance the rest through bonds.
Meanwhile, it was the on-again, off-again $1 billion-plus tunnels project that took top priority and center stage in recent years as its fate was threatened over and over.
Local leaders joined forces last year in what became the final fight for the project designed to relieve downtown truck traffic and improve access to the port.
Now the tunnels are a go, with roadwork under way — but the timeline for the dredging is getting tight.
To make room for the massive ships expected to head this way when an expanded Panama Canal opens in four years, the channel must be dredged to 50 feet by 2014, the same year the underwater tunnels are expected to be finished.
But to let bids and begin digging, half the federal money must be in the bank. That's $37.5 million needed by fiscal 2012.
The preliminary engineering and design is expected to be completed about a year from now.
From there, the Army Corps of Engineers could begin the process of drawing up a contract — but to do it, a "symbolic amount" somewhere in the $100,000 range must be in hand first.
That's got to happen this year, Deputy Port Director Juan Kuryla said at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's Goals Conference last week, where what is shaping up to be a big public push for the project began.
Both private and public-sector leaders plugged the project every chance they could during the two-day summit.
Lobbying for the funding made the list of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's goals for the year, and several participants named the project as a main concern during the Government Affairs session.
"When they open up the Panama Canal, our port has to be ready," said Stephen Sauls, Florida International University's vice president of governmental relations, during the government session.
Miami-Dade International Trade Consortium Assistant Director Jimmy Nares said the same at the transportation powwow, warning that "we stand to lose competitiveness" if the port can't accommodate larger ships.
County Manager George Burgess highlighted the dredging project in an address to the full conference body, imploring business leaders to put their game faces on to press for the funding.
With the tunnels, "we kept our eye on the prize and we got it done," he said.
But "the work at the port is simply not done. The effort we put into the tunnel a year ago must be repeated" — and "redoubled," the manager told a packed ballroom of chamber goal-setters. "We need to be ready to handle post-Panamax ships."
The congressional approval that's for years been a feather in Miami-Dade's cap "won't matter if we can't secure $75 million in federal funding," he said.
And if it doesn't happen, Mr. Burgess said, "then frankly we should look in the mirror and say, "What did we do wrong?'"