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Two opponents facing off is a duel. Three is a truel. That's what's going down between the ports of Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville. All three are pushing big plans to deepen their harbors, but as Peter Haden of member station WJCT reports, the city of Jacksonville is split over whether to stay in the game.
PETER HADEN, BYLINE: The modern electric cranes are pretty quiet at the Port of Jacksonville except when they slap the containers on the trucks.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONTAINERS DROPPED ON TRUCKS)
HADEN: Two guys in blaze-orange vests quickly pin the container to the truck and it takes off. There's a lot of folks working out here and Vince Cameron, he knows them all. He wears a hard hat and a whistle around his neck. He's the president of the local longshoremen's union.
VINCE CAMERON: My dad was a longshoreman for 44 years on these docks before he retired. Yeah, I'm a child of this port.
HADEN: In front of us, a weathered Horizon Lines freighter that just pulled in from Puerto Rico.
So how big a ship is this?
CAMERON: This actually is a baby in the whole scheme of things, right? It's a good ship and all, but she's kind of slow and she uses diesel fuel like - I mean she drinks it like water.
HADEN: But these small ships are falling out of favor on some routes. When the Panama Canal expansion is finished, possibly next year, a new generation of colossal super-efficient container ships sailing from Asia will be able to squeeze through the canal and deliver goods directly to East Coast ports. These massive ships require deeper harbors and Jacksonville is debating whether to go all in on a $700 million dredging project. Down on these docks, the decision is clear.
CAMERON: It's a do or die kind of thing for this port because what'll happen is you will have ports that'll be in the Super Bowl of commerce and ports that'll be niche ports. And once we have decided that we're not going to dig out the ditch, widen the channel to accommodate the new vehicle to which is going to be bringing this cargo from Asia, then we're saying that we're not going be a part of the Super Bowl of commerce.
HADEN: And if Jacksonville can't accommodate the big ships, Cameron fears they'll go to Savannah and Charleston. At stake, millions of containers of Asian cargo and the jobs that go along with moving them. Jacksonville still has to find around $150 million in local funding for the project. Savannah and Charleston have their funding secured so there's no choice here, according to port CEO, Brian Taylor.
BRIAN TAYLOR: You know, we talk about a plan B and when it comes to deepening the harbor, there is no plan B. If we do not deepen this port and Savannah moves to 47 feet, we will lose the jobs and the volume and the opportunity to the state of Georgia.
HADEN: The demise of the port is something no one in Jacksonville wants to see, including University of North Florida sociologist David Jaffee. He's an outspoken critic of the port deepening.
DAVID JAFFEE: Do I think the port is important for Jacksonville? Yes. Do I think it's an important component of the local economy? Yes. Does it create jobs? Yes, but when you want public investment to the tune of what I believe would ultimately be $1 billion, you need to be very clear about what impact the port has.
HADEN: Jaffee says officials exaggerate the economic impact of deepening the port. He suggests that Jacksonville can remain viable as a niche port for trade with Latin America, which doesn't use the giant ships. Others question whether the big ships will come to Jacksonville even after the port is deepened and environmentalists fear the dredging will cause dangerous spikes in salinity that could kill plants and fish in the St. Johns River. City Councilman Jim Love, like most of the council, wants the port deepened, but here's the problem.
CITY COUNCILMAN JIM LOVE: With the tight budget, we have to figure out a way to find the money because it is a big number.
HADEN: Jacksonville is already struggling with a budget crisis. It owes more than a billion dollars to police and fire fighter pension funds. The city council is now considering ways to fund the port project, including a new sales tax and is expected to make a decision next spring.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden.
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