The Miami Herald

White House speeds up permits, offers no new cash for PortMiami dredge project

The White House on Thursday put PortMiami’s long-awaited dredging project on a list of fast-tracked, nationally significant seaport improvement projects, guaranteeing it an expedited permitting process.

Practically speaking, the designation means little, since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already pushed the plan forward after it cleared all regulatory hurdles and survived a legal challenge from environmentalists.

The Army Corps is already expected to put the $180 million project up for bid in August.

Still, in a joint statement, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and PortMiami Director Bill Johnson lauded the federal recognition, with Johnson saying “over the past several years the deep dredge has been a number one priority for PortMiami.”

Thursday’s announcement by the White House does not mean money is likely to flow from the federal government any time soon. In March, pushing the much-needed dredging project along, Gov. Rick Scott visited the port and announced the state would advance the county more than $90 million.

Scott’s hope was that the state would be reimbursed. Miami-Dade will cover the remainder of the $180 million cost to deepen the port from 42 to 50 feet, a move the county is undertaking to accommodate the mega-ships that will glide through the newer, deeper Panama Canal.

Because Congress has ordered the Army Corps not to begin any new projects indefinitely, Johnson said, the White House would need to propose funding for Miami-Dade, which then would send the money back to the state.

Asked Johnson: “I’ve got a big question mark: Where are the dollars? Is the president putting dollars for PortMiami into his budget next year?”

That wasn’t clear Thursday, with one senior administration official saying only, “Today’s announcements focus just on expediting all remaining federal reviews.”

Johnson and Gimenez, in their statement, went out of their way to praise the governor.

“Governor Scott and the state Legislature made this project happen through advancing state financing of the federal share of the project,” Johnson said.

When complete, PortMiami will be the only East Coast port below Norfolk, Va., with a 50-foot depth in time for the Panama Canal’s expected 2015 opening.

Perhaps as or more significant than Thursday’s announcement was a county commission vote earlier in the week to spend an additional $23 million on an aging and flawed sewer line that runs from Miami Beach to the mainland through Government Cut, where the dredging would take place.

The goal, according to Water and Sewer Department Director John Renfrow — who lobbied for the funds — is to have the 54-inch main under the bay that leads to a Virginia Key water treatment plant repaired before the dredging begins, likely next year. The county had already allotted $54 million for that project, but determined additional money was needed because the pipe was in worse shape than first believed.

Amanda Ellison, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps in Jacksonville, said the pipeline work shouldn’t delay the dredging, which is expected to last two years.

“We’ve scheduled our work to avoid impacts to that [sewer] project,” she said.

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