Army Corps of Engineers awards contract to deepen Miami port



With the awarding of a $122-million contract to deepen its harbor, PortMiami has taken an important step toward getting ready to handle the huge cargo ships that will cross the expanded Panama Canal in 2015.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has awarded the contract to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corp., an Oak Brook, Ill., a firm that has done dredging at ports from California to New York.

It will deepen Miami’s shipping channels from the current 44 feet to a depth of 50 to 52 feet and widen a portion of one of the channels, allowing super-large ships to pick up and discharge cargo at PortMiami.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez called the contract award a “major milestone’’ for the port and said the deep dredge project was “vital to the future success and growth of our seaport.’’

As part of the project, nine acres of artificial reef will be created and more than 16 acres of sea grass in northern Biscayne Bay will be restored. Hard coral colonies also will be relocated.

Divers will monitor natural resources near the project site before, during and after all dredging, port officials said, following protocols set by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Environmentalists had filed suit against the project but dropped their opposition in April 2012 after Miami-Dade agreed to spend $2.3 million on restoration and mitigation. Two previous projects to deepen the harbor resulted in silt wafting across coral reefs and sea grass and the gouging of three acres of sea grass at a nearby state aquatic preserve.

“Together with our state and federal partners, the port is committed to upholding the highest environmental standards for the project,’’ said Port Director Bill Johnson.

More than 300 workers are expected to be employed in the dredging and environmental mitigation project.

The super carriers — called post-Panamax ships — are too long, wide and heavy to traverse the current Panama Canal. But by mid-2015, a $525 billion canal expansion project accommodating bigger ships is expected to be completed. As the world’s cargo fleet increasingly switches to more economical post-Panamax vessels, most U.S. seaports will need to deepen their harbors and make other adjustments to handle the big ships that can carry as many as 13,000 containers and stretch as long as three football fields.

Along the Eastern Seaboard, only the ports of Baltimore; Norfolk, Va., and New York are deep enough to handle fully loaded post-Panamax ships, and New York still needs to raise the deck of the Bayonne Bridge so the ships can reach warehouse areas.

The $205 million Miami dredging project is expected to begin in August and be completed in early 2015, giving PortMiami a head start on other ports that plan to dredge and a competitive advantage in trying to win logistics and trans-shipment business.

The state pledged $112 million, allowing the project to begin without waiting for federal money. “As PortMiami moves into the next phase of construction, Florida will be able to accommodate larger vessels, leading to more trade opportunities and more jobs for Florida families,’’ Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday in a statement. “As the gateway to Latin America and beyond, it is vital that Florida remains competitive with other ports along the eastern coast of the United States.’’

Great Lakes won a $122 million contract that will cover work on excavation of the offshore entrance channel to the port. A second contract to deepen the port’s inner channels is expected to be awarded by Jan. 31, 2014.

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