Scott to Obama: Reimburse Florida for PortMiami dredging project

President Barack Obama will use the construction cranes and cargo containers at PortMiami as a backdrop Friday to speak about boosting the economy through investments in ports, roads and bridges.

But as the seaport dusted off its welcome mat Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott had a less inviting message for the president: Bring your checkbook.

The state kicked in $77 million two years ago to fund the port’s $180-million “deep dredge” project, which will allow Miami to accommodate larger cargo ships and create more than 30,000 new jobs. Now Florida wants its money back.

Scott called on Obama, who will be visiting South Florida for the first time since winning reelection in November, to reimburse the state.

“We’re certainly glad President Obama is coming to the port of Miami tomorrow, but he’s late to the party,” Scott told reporters in a conference call Thursday morning.

In the past three years, Scott said, Florida taxpayers have invested $425 million in seaport-related upgrades to improve international trade with Latin America and Asia and prepare for the expansion of the Panama Canal. Florida has 15 ports, including Key West, Tampa and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

“We could not wait for the federal government to come to the table with their share of the project,” Scott said.

The Republican governor also wants the feds to reimburse Florida for $38 million in improvements to make it easier for ships to navigate JaxPort, the Jacksonville seaport.

The White House responded by noting that it funded a $340 million loan to help finance Miami’s port tunnel project and a $23 million grant to restore freight rail service between PortMiami and the Florida East Coast Railway.

The White House also placed the dredging project to deepen the port to 50 from 42 feet on a list of fast-tracked seaport improvements, guaranteeing an expediting permitting process — though in practice, the project had already cleared all regulatory hurdles and survived a lawsuit from environmentalists.

“The President believes that the Port of Miami can enhance the competitiveness of workers and businesses throughout the region and in the nation as a whole,” Joanna Rosholm, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to award the project to a contractor in the next two months, Port Director Bill Johnson said, with construction planned to begin this summer. The county has already reinforced the port wharves along the channel to withstand the dredging.

Johnson lobbied for federal funding for the project years before Scott and state lawmakers stepped in. Miami-Dade is covering the remainder of the cost.

Once the dredge is completed, Miami will be able to double its container movement and 33,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created, said Johnson, who is also president of the Florida Ports Council.

On the call with reporters, he praised Scott but was more conciliatory in his remarks toward the White House.

“What I’m pleased to see is a strengthening relationship with Washington,” Johnson said. “The United States as a whole needs to move forward, and Congress really needs to step up.”

Scott, who is up for re-election next year, has made port funding a cornerstone of his job creation efforts in the state.

Obama’s visit may be a good sign for the future, Johnson said.

“We’ve obviously caught the attention of the administration, of the White House,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed, as did Steve Bousquet of the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau and McClatchy White House Correspondent Lesley Clark.

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