Corps of Engineers says Miami River dredging could start on time
By Susan Stabley
Tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to dredge Miami River have been diverted, but project proponents say work could still begin in late summer.
Matching federal dollars for the work has been routed to other projects while the river-dredging plan was being put together. But the US Army Corps of Engineers said last week that there should be enough to start work as scheduled, with the rest of the funding to be provided later.
"The Army Corps used the $24.5 million for other projects. They do it all the time, we were told," said Debra Zimmerman, chief of staff for US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who likened the diversion to "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
The dredging project is considered vital to the economy of the Miami River, tied with Tampa Bay as the state's fourth-busiest port. The Miami River Commission and others say the project is necessary to lower the river's depth to 15 feet to accommodate cargo ships and to prevent contaminants from flowing into Biscayne Bay.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen sent a letter Feb. 13 to the Army corps director of civil works in Washington to express concern about the budgeting and scheduling of the work.
"Beyond the continued environmental degradation and loss of economic activity resulting from a delayed project schedule, both the federal government's and, equally important, the local sponsor's costs will increase significantly if the project schedule extends beyond what was needed," the congresswoman wrote to Major Gen. Carl A. Strock. "Again, such delays would not be the result of new or unforeseen conditions associated with the project but rather budgetary decisions made by the corps."
According to the letter, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had been told that even only $5 million of more than $24.5 million secured for the project has been allotted for the current fiscal year.
The federal dollars are intended to be an 80% funding of a two- to four-year project that is estimated to cost $54 million to $72 million, according to the Miami River Commission. The state will cover 10% of the cost, with the Florida Inland Navigation District covering 5% and the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County 2.5% each.
According to the corps, some of the $24.5 million was spent on related studies and work connected to the dredging, while the rest was directed toward unrelated projects.
Money was set aside by the federal government in 2000, corps officials said. Each year, as the project was not ready, the corps used the funds elsewhere.
"We tried to be good stewards and spend it where it is needed," said Richard Bonner, the corps' deputy district engineer for programming and project management in the Jacksonville district.
Congress has not reserved funds for next year, and a new economic study may affect the project's chances for money in 2006, according to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's office and the corps.
Cargo ships are stymied by Miami River's shallow waters and can travel its 5.5-mile length only during high tide and with partial loads.
The river moves $4.1 billion in cargo annually and about 8,000 jobs are directly and indirectly generated by the river, said Brett Bibeau, managing director of the Miami River Commission, a group formed in 1998 by the state Legislature to handle public policy related to the corridor.
The Army corps issued a request for proposals for the project in August and planned to award a bid in January but delayed its decision until March 12.
"This project is at a standstill until the corps opens the bids, tells us who it is and funds the project," Ms. Zimmerman said Thursday.
Still, she and others said the project has been delayed, not derailed.
"We feel that the corps will continue to do the right thing for our community," Mr. Bibeau said. "We are months away from bringing this to fruition. It's a small delay in the larger time frame."
A proposal for the project began in 1972 with Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's predecessor, Claude Pepper, Mr. Bibeau said. The last work performed on the river was in 1933.
Ms. Zimmerman said last week, "We are so close, I don't believe we will fail."
The Army Corps of Engineers is close to awarding a contract for disposal of more than a million tons of muck to be dredged from the river.
Richard Bonner, the corps' deputy district engineer for programming and project management in the Jacksonville district, said Friday that a bid could be awarded this week.
The removed sediment will be transported to a selected landfill after it is dried. The drying of the sediment will occur at a site in Miami's Melrose community, according to Mr. Bibeau.
Scheduled to start this summer, dredging may be delayed because federal funds were diverted elsewhere while the Miami River project was being finalized. Each year, as the dredging was not ready to begin, the corps diverted funds allocated in 2000, according to Mr. Bonner.
A delay may affect a supplementary $12 million, four-year dredging project that would target areas outside the river's navigable channel. The City of Miami has committed $1 million for the first year of the project, according to city documents. On Feb. 12, the Miami City Commission approved splitting the costs with Miami-Dade County.
The corps would not disclose names of companies bidding for the disposal or dredging project until a decision is made. Al Josephson of Great Lakes Dredging and Dock said at a Dec. 10 meeting of the Miami river Commission's Dredging Working Group that his company was one of five bidders, according to minutes of the meeting.