Port Authority plots next steps

By TIM CROFT, The Star
227-7827 |@PSJ_St

Thursday, MARCH 19, 2015

Last week the Port St. Joe Port Authority began entered the post-permit stage of developing the Port of Port St. Joe.

With the Feb. 28 arrival of the final federal regulatory permit, the Port Authority begins March with new energy and challenges in the quest to dredge the federally authorized shipping channel.

If the final permit was the "green light", the next chapter of the story is hued in green in the form of funding to complete the dredging and open the port. Board chair Eugene Raffield broke it down.

"There are a lot of really exciting things going on," Raffield said. "We have all the permits. "Now we need to execute the plan to get each phase completed and the dredging done."

The first task is funding to complete the final engineering and design for the spoil infrastructure, namely berms. That price tag is estimated at $1.2 million, according to engineers Hatch Mott MacDonald.

The next priority is to complete the Genesse Wyoming rail spur that connects the port planning area to points north and onto Chattahoochee.

A Florida Department of Transportation grant for $3.75 million has been earmarked, which would combine with a $1.25 million match from the St. Joe Company for a package already set aside.

However, due to a trestle fire along the line, the estimate is that an additional $1.5 million could be needed to complete the rehab of the rail line, Raffield said.

Ed Chadwell, who oversees FDOT rail and seaport work in District III, said indications are that officials in Tallahassee have been asked to release the initial grant monies.

Raffield is also seeking funding of $165,000 which would allow the Port Authority to resolve outstanding debts, including to the Board of County Commissioners, save bills owed to attorneys in Tallahassee and Florida Ports Council dues.

The Port Authority has long sought to secure operational stability through the dredge work and port development that would open a revenue stream through dockage fees and tariffs.

Finally, the largest pot, the final tab for completing the dredging, or $40 million, which adds up to a total of $42.8 million that will be requested from state coffers, Raffield said.

The state appropriated $20 million last year for the dredging.

It is estimated the dredge and spoil disposal work, including construction disposal infrastructure to accommodate some 5 million cubic yards of spoil, will reach $60 million.

"This way (state officials) have an idea of what the reality is," Raffield said.

State Sen. Bill Montford has carried a budget request of $42 million forward as the Florida Legislature, currently early in its 60-day session, works toward a final budget the first of May.

The key, said County Commissioner Warren Yeager, will be "timing" for a scope of work that Raffield said will likely be accomplished in "phases."

Yeager said during last week's BOCC meeting and again during the Port Authority regular meeting that Montford has requested a meeting with Raffield, Yeager and representatives of the St. Joe Company.

He said one critical component is the finalizing of agreements between St. Joe and two energy companies which entered into formal letters of intent to ship through the Port of Port St. Joe.

Contracts formalizing the partnerships, with the Port Authority as a partner, remain a work in progress, but has been cited by the governor's office as critical.

"We need to develop a plan for where the dollars would come from," Yeager said, adding that "it is early in the session … there are different ways to skin a cat and get money to the port."

Yeager and Raffield said there were various pots of money within the final budget to seek funding from and emphasized the importance of formulating a game plan so all stakeholders are on the same page with the same message.

"I feel pretty confident we will get there … given the hoops we have already jumped through," Raffield said. "We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we'll get there."

Raffield said he would attend a Florida Ports Council meeting next week and added that Enterprise Florida "is all over us" with tactics for marketing the port.

"There are a lot of good things going on for the port right now," Raffield said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has the responsibility of making the dredging happen under a contributed funds agreement with the Port Authority, is roughly two months away from the first shovel turning, said Tommy Pitts, project manager with Hatch Mott.

The Corps has received congressional approval for the project and is "ready to move forward" depending on funding. Pitts estimated dredging will begin in late April or May.

Construction of spoil disposal infrastructure, Pitts said, was a four-to-five month process, including public hearings and bidding, and the sooner engineering and design is undertaken the better.

"I feel really good about a lot of things that are going on," Raffield said. "This could be a big regional economic changer."

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