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Ports Advocates Thank Gov. Scott, Lawmakers For Proposed Funding

Florida’s seaports are undergoing major renovations to get ready for the soon-to-be-complete widening of the Panama Canal and the influx of shipping it’s expected to bring. A group of port advocates were in Tallahassee on Wednesday to thank lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott for proposed ports funding in this year’s budget.

A group representing Jacksonville’s JaxPort seaport say, they know they have friends in Tallahassee.

Among them was Jennifer Yoder, who works for engineering firm England-Thims and Miller, which does work at JaxPort. She’s also the founder of a campaign called Support Our Port.  

“I think we’re particularly lucky to have a governor that gets it and understands,” she said. “We also have a Department of Transportation that understands. Our Department of Transportation secretary, Mr. Biter, who is here, get that ports are important.”

Support our Port has been running a letter-writing campaign to show popular support for port infrastructure improvements and deepening JaxPort to make way for the expected megaships that will be coming through the Panama Canal.

“My grandmother worked for JaxPort in the secretarial pool when she met my grandfather, who was in the Navy. So I feel like it’s kind of in my blood,” Yoder said.

On Wednesday, the group showed up on the Old Historic Capitol steps with 15,000 letters from Floridians.

“We want to see that, if there’s ever an economic downturn again, that we’re not affected as greatly by it,” Yoder said. “It’s all about family and the importance of supporting your family.”

She said, the group has faced some pushback from environmental groups concerned about the proposed deepening. But in the state Capitol, port expansion is celebrated. Gov. Scott has allocated almost $290 million for port improvements in his proposed budget. And he highlighted seaports as a key part of his job-creation plan during his State of the State address two weeks ago.

“Manufacturing businesses, combined with Florida’s great location and 15 seaports, means more jobs for Florida families,” Scott said. He also asked lawmakers to stand and applaud Bill Johnson, director of the Port of Miami and chair of the Florida Ports Council, who was in attendance.

And Richard Biter, with the Department of Transportation, said, state funding is revolutionizing port capacity in the Everglades, Port Canaveral and Miami. He said, when Miami’s dredging is complete, it will be the only port south of Norfolk, Va., with a channel 50 feet deep, which is required for the biggest ships. And other projects are in the works, too.

“There’s the Miami tunnel that will connect the port directly to I-395 and to 95, and again, take all those thousands of trucks off the roads going through downtown Miami and put them right on the Interstate, so it’s really significant,” Biter said.

He said, last year’s Legislature paved the way for large-scale projects by passing a bill overhauling the way they’re financed. And he said, it’s a good thing the state is so strongly behind ports, because funding certainly isn’t coming from the federal level as quickly as it’s needed.  

“If we wait for the feds to act, we’ve lost the game,” he said. “In other words, it’s something where, there’s such a direct connection between port investment and jobs, we can’t wait for them. I mean, we’ve got to make those investments ourselves.”

But the Support our Port group isn’t giving up on the feds just yet. Yoder said, the bags of letters are heading North in May.

“Our Representative, Ander Crenshaw (R-FL 4), is helping us put together a presentation on the Capitol steps to take the message to D.C.,” she said.

The state Department of Transportation is asking Florida Congressional delegates to help expedite port projects by changing federal regulations.