PORT MANATEE -- Federal money to study deepening Manatee Harbor at Port Manatee has been included in President Barack Obama's administration budget request.
Obama's fiscal 2015 budget request includes $100,000 to fund the initial study that explores deepening Manatee Harbor's 40-foot-deep channel, according to Port Manatee officials. The port is one of only three American ports to be tabbed for new deep-draft navigation studies in the federal budget, said Dave Sanford, deputy executive director for the port. The federal budget was released Tuesday and still needs congressional approval and subsequently to be signed by the president.
The $100,000 reconnaissance study is just the start of a process that could take more than 10 years before the 2.9-mile-long channel is deepened between the port and Egmont Key.
"Reaching our target harbor depth of 45 feet should enable us to accommodate the majority of vessels transiting the expanded Panama Canal," Sanford said.
The 45-foot-depth holds importance for both strategic port business and maximum funding from the federal government. Channels at 45 feet and below can receive 75 percent federal funding whereas deeper channels have a 50-50 cost share between federal and local government, Sanford said.
The depth can actually accommodate vessels from the Panama Canal that draft 50 feet given a combination of factors that allow pilots to navigate a ship in a shallower channel.
"By the time those ves
sels steam north and burn fuel, they're lighter by the time they reach port," Sanford said. "So when you consider the fuel consumed and the availability of tide, then you're probably safe with a 45-foot channel and 2 feet of tide. You can pretty much accommodate any vessel that's going to come through the Panama Canal."
The port's channel, regularly brings in ships that draft 39 feet, he added.
The harbor is near the Gulf of Mexico entrance to Tampa Bay, giving the port a strategic location as the closest American port to the Panama Canal, which is scheduled to open its expanded facility in 2015. The $100,000 coming from the federal government is part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers budget proposal and would pay entirely for the first phase of the study.
The Corps' Jacksonville District visited the port this winter for an initial appraisal study meant to justify the budget request and project, setting off the next steps, Sanford said.
The reconnaissance study is essentially a "literature study" done by reviewing documents, he said.
It would take a year to complete before a feasibility study could begin. The port would pay half the cost for the feasibility study, which could take three to four years based on new Corps guidelines set to be implemented, but could take as long as eight years if the new procedures aren't in place, Sanford said. That would be followed by one to two years to design the project and then two construction seasons to complete the deepening at best.
While that timeline helps the port, completion of the channel will be well after the 2015 opening of the expanded Panama Canal. Port Authority Chairwoman and County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she's thankful the project is starting now instead of never.
"At least we were considered," Whitmore said. "It could have been any port in the United States."
The selection also shows faith by federal and state leaders that Port Manatee is an "opportune place to look at deepwater port (shipping) and deepwater dredging," Whitmore said.
Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said he appreciates the federal government's recognition of the port's importance.
"With the deeper harbor, Port Manatee will be able to provide existing and new customers with greater economies of scale and overall transportation savings," Buqueras said.
"We see the deeper harbor as a key element in Port Manatee developing and maintaining the role of the preferred port on Tampa Bay, and one of America's premier seaports for generations to come."
Port officials are expected to calculate the financial impact of having a deeper channel when the port's master plan is updated, Sanford said.
The deeper channel would also allow existing tenants to haul more cargo, loading deeper, to save on transportation and move more goods in and out of Port Manatee, Sanford said.
"We certainly would expect Port Manatee to be more competitive in attracting additional ship calls that would result from an expanded Panama Canal," Sanford added.
Ports in New Haven, Conn., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, also are budgeted for $100,000 for deepening studies, according to the federal budget.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.