Vince Cameron knows all the people buzzing around the Port of Jacksonville in their bright blaze vests. “My dad was a longshoreman for 44 years on these docks before he retired,” he says. “I’m a child of this port.”
In his hard hat and with a whistle around his neck, Cameron looks on as a weathered Horizon Lines freighter pulls in from Puerto Rico.
The ship is “a baby in the whole scheme of things,” says Cameron, president of the local longshoreman’s union. “It’s a good ship … but she’s kinda slow and she uses diesel fuel. I mean, she drinks it like water.”
Small ships like these are falling out of favor on some shipping routes. And when an expansion of the Panama Canal is finished, possibly next year, a new generation of colossal, superefficient container ships from Asia will be squeezing through, delivering goods directly to East Coast ports.
Those massive vessels, known as post-Panamax ships, require deeper harbors — and that has the ports of Jacksonville, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., in a three-way competition to deepen their harbors.
But Jacksonville is split over whether to stay in the game. City officials are debating whether to go all in on a $700 million dredging project to accommodate the ships.
Down on the docks, the decision is clear.
“It’s a do-or-die kinda thing for this port,” Cameron says. “What’ll happen is, you’ll have ports that’ll be in the Super Bowl of commerce, and ports that’ll be niche ports.
“And once we have decided that we’re not going to dig out the ditch, widen the channel, to accommodate the new vehicle which is gonna be bringing this cargo from Asia, then we’re saying that we’re not going to be part of the Super Bowl of commerce,” he says.
If Jacksonville can’t accommodate the big ships, Cameron fears they’ll go to Savannah and Charleston. Millions of containers of Asian cargo and the jobs that go along with moving them could be at stake.
While Jacksonville still has to find around $150 million in local funding for the project, Savannah and Charleston have their funding secured. That means there’s no choice here, says Brian Taylor, CEO of the Jacksonville Port Authority.
“We talk about a Plan B. And when it comes to deepening the harbor, there is no Plan B,” Taylor says. “If we do not deepen this port, and Savannah moves to 47 feet, we will lose the jobs and the volume and the opportunity to the state of Georgia.”
Taylor says the project will also capitalize on Jacksonville’s logistical assets, like quick access to several interstates and three major railroads. Currently, he says, thousands of containers unloaded in Savannah run “down a highway directly in front of our port facilities on its way to Central Florida. That’s [traffic that our port] is after. It’s faster, cheaper and quicker to unload it here.”
No one in Jacksonville wants to see the demise of the port. That includes David Jaffee, a sociologist at the University of North Florida — an outspoken critic of the port deepening.
“Do I think the port is important for Jacksonville? Yes. Do I think it’s an important component of the local economy? Yes. Does it create jobs? Yes. But when you want public investment to the tune of what I believe will ultimately be $1 billion, you need to be very clear about what impact the port has,” he says.
Jaffee says officials exaggerate the economic impact of deepening the port. He suggests that Jacksonville can remain viable — as a niche port for trade with Latin America, which doesn’t use the giant ships.
Others question whether the big ships will come to Jacksonville, even after the port is deepened. And environmentalists fear the dredging will cause dangerous spikes in salinity that could kill plants and fish in the St. Johns River.
City Councilman Jim Love, like most of the council, wants the port deepened but says that funding is a problem. “With the tight budget, we have to figure out a way to find the money. Because it is a big number,” he says.
Jacksonville is already struggling with a budget crisis — it owes more than $1 billion to police and firefighter pension funds. The City Council is now considering ways to fund the port project — including a new sales tax — and is expected to make a decision next spring.