Politicians' victory keeps South Florida ports crying out for dollars

South Florida's maritime infrastructure can't rely on federal funding

Without federal funding, the Army Corps of Engineers is working on the Port of Miami dredging project with Miami-Dade County and Florida funding.

MIAMI – With November elections looming, there is a Congressional bipartisan push in Washington to pass the first water resources bill in seven years. 

And although the $8.2 billion House-Senate deal did not direct funds to be spent on specific projects, some politicians were quick to take to social media to brag. Some on Twitter said that the bill is a "big win." That it will "maintain the economic momentum," and allow Florida to "receive major investments in ports."

But the Water Resources Reform and Development Act  does not address the funding gaps with immediacy and actual dollars. Instead, it unlocks a new system that increasingly puts the responsibility of finding the money for projects on local authorities. 

Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, the vice chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee involved in the negotiations, said Thursday afternoon on Twitter that she was "excited" about the bill, which will be up for a House vote Tuesday.

The WRRDA sets in motion the ability for infrastructure projects like the restoration of the Florida Everglades to get federal funding in the future. It also promotes public-private partnerships and cost-sharing programs. 

Two minute WRRDA explanation

Earlier this week, Frankel was not so enthusiastic, while in front of a group who opposes the $88.6 million Port of Palm Beach dredging project. She said there was no guarantee the money would be allocated.

The federal budget and appropriations process would determine what funding, if any, would be available for the 34 projects the WRRDA authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to work on.

Waiting for federal funding was out of the question for Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and PortMiami, which have to make way for mega cargo vessels coming from Asia once the Panama Canal expansion is completed.

Port Everglades, which generates about $26 billion a year in economic activity, has been waiting to deepen and widen canals for about 18 years. The upgrade is estimated to cost $320 million. The port has $131 million.

"This is about moving cargo and reducing costs, and doing things efficiently so ultimately the consumer benefits from reduced cost," Port Everglades Director Steve Cernak said.

With support from Miami-Dade County and Gov. Rick Scott, PortMiami forged ahead with the $150 million ongoing dredging project that will deepen the channels 10 more feet.

Luis Prieto-Muñoz, a marine infrastructure consultant, is involved in the Army Corps of Engineers education program and is helping PortMiami to manage the risks of the dredging project.

Prieto-Muñoz, of Piedroba Consulting Group, said that although the new legislation focuses on the Corps studying ways to involve non-federal sponsors to a greater degree, the bill could benefit Port Everglades if it manages to complete the dredging project.

"If Port Everglades deepens [to 50-foot], the federal government would be responsible for 100 percent of the project's navigation maintenance cost," Prieto-Muñoz said.

While PortMiami is way on its way to remaining competitive, Port Everglades is not even close to starting the four to five year $320 million project.  

"The large ships are already coming here, but they have to sail higher up in the water," Cernak said. "A vessel fully loaded that would need 48 feet can't come here, so we have vessels that are not being used efficiently, because they only have access to 42 feet. That is what we are trying to correct."

The infrastructure deficit is a national issue. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers the country needs to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to maintain the existing infrastructure. During negotiations, both parties agreed that there was a need, but they couldn't agree on ways of getting the money.

While President George W. Bush vetoed a version in 2007, President Barack Obama, who has spent the week talking about infrastructure, is likely to sign this year's version. In two years, congressional leaders will enact another version.

At Port Everglades, "it all comes down to cash," Cernak said. 

"There are all these investments that we need to make … we have to play catch up to adjust to the market place," Cernak said. "We are trying to do a lot at once and we have to look at alternative ways of financing these projects."

Port Everglades has a much more complex environmental situation than PortMiami, Prieto-Muñoz said. During the dredging about 20 acres of ancient coral reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale will be damaged.

Cernak was able to coordinate an agreement. The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to allow a $25 million artificial reef with at least 100,000 limestone corals grown in nurseries in South Florida.

"Budgeting is a different battle for another day," Cernak said.