County commits $7 million to Miami River dredging
By Dan Dolan
Miami-Dade officials are pushing their entire $7 million stake into the stalled $74 million Miami River dredging project, betting the federal government will come through with another $26 million to complete the mission that's considered key to increasing trade with Caribbean ports.
The chances of getting more federal funding improved last week when two influential South Florida congressmen, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, announced that they will tour the river March 2 before introducing legislation to finance the remaining sections of the project to deepen the Federal Navigation Channel to 15 feet.
Even if the US government doesn't kick in more cash, county environmental management director Louis Espinosa said deepening the channel is so important, his agency and other project partners — including the state, the City of Miami and the Inland Navigation District — may have to consider going it alone.
"This project has significant economic, environmental and esthetic benefits," Mr. Espinosa said. "It is a winner in all aspects. But if we don't finish the work, everything we've done to date could be rendered meaningless."
The US Army Corps of Engineers' dredging contractor has completed six of 15 planned phases. Work began upstream because contaminants released by dredging would flow downstream into unfinished sections, Mr. Espinosa said. That ensures the upstream portions will remain untainted by the rest of the work, he said.
Mr. Espinosa and officials of the Miami River Commission said the project's downstream components yield the most economic benefit and must be completed. But the money's not there to do it all.
So local government agencies have decided to spend $7 million, the rest of their share of costs for the venture, to complete three more downstream sections of the channel, said a spokesman for the Miami River Commission, which oversees trade and economic development in the county's shallow-water port facility.
Once that money is gone, local agencies will have to wait for federal funding to finish the work or decide to pay for it themselves. At the moment, there are no more local allocations for the project.
"We're facing a $26 million shortfall in federal funding," Mr. Espinosa said. "We've decided to spend all our money now to get the dredging going again in May."
Until this plan was developed, Mr. Espinosa said, local agencies doled out small chunks of money only as federal contributions became available. Now they're putting it in one pool to finish work without guaranteed federal matching funds.
"This means the last segments will be done solely with federal money," Mr. Espinosa said. "All the local commitment will be spent. It's an interim solution until more federal dollars become available. But future federal appropriations are uncertain."
That's why Republican Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said she urged her Broward Democratic colleague, Rep. Wasserman Schultz, who serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, to tour the river and its shipping terminal facilities, which bring in cargo from more than 100 Caribbean ports.
Local government officials and business leaders say completing the dredging project will create a boom in riverfront trade, commercial and residential development and 350 jobs at the Merrill-Stevens ship-repair yard.
Merrill-Stevens vice president Mark Bailey said his firm plans to build a $55 million facility to repair 250-foot mega yachts once dredging is complete. But if dredging dies, so does the mega-yacht project, Mr. Bailey said, because the shipping channel is too shallow to handle big recreational boats.
The Federal Navigation Channel, which runs through Biscayne Bay, averages about 11 feet deep, too shallow for freighters to travel upriver at anything but high tide, the Miami River Commission official said.
And because of depth restrictions, cargo ships can't carry full loads into river facilities, he said. Freighters are limited to 50% of their cargo capacity, which can make it inefficient and expensive to do business in Miami, the commission official said.
"The project will increase international trade, commerce and local employment while improving the natural environment of both Biscayne Bay and the Miami River," said Miami River Commission chairwoman Irela Bagué. "But the project's benefits will only be realized upon completion."