By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - The United States Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $180 million contract to dredge Miami's harbor to an Illinois-based company on Thursday, part of a plan to deepen the port channel to handle larger ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal in 2015.
The port hopes its short distance from the canal, as well as $2 billion of planned infrastructure upgrades, will make Miami a more attractive choice for global shippers looking to distribute goods to the U.S. market.
Miami's deep dredge project, due to begin in August will make the port more competitive with other deep water east coast ports, including Baltimore and Norfolk, enabling it to handle larger "Post-Panamax" ships that carry two or three times the load of standard freighters.
The Port of Baltimore recently completed work on one berth that can accommodate the larger ships.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez called the contract award a "major milestone" for Miami's port, which was vital its future success and growth.
"Port Miami will be the only U.S. East Coast Port south of Virginia to be at the required minus 50 feet level in time to welcome the new generation of larger container cargo vessels arriving via the expanded Panama Canal," he said.
The port currently has a maximum depth of 42 feet deep and dredging deeper requires federal authorization. The dredging contract was won by Great Lakes Dock and Dredge, which describes itself as the largest provider of dredging services in the United States.
Miami's dredge project won the bipartisan support of both the Obama administration and Florida's Republican Governor, Rick Scott, who pledged $112 million in state funds to the project.
In order to satisfy environmental concerns in Biscayne Bay, the dredging project includes the restoration of more than 16 acres of sea grass and the creation of over nine acres of artificial reef.
The deepening of Miami's channel will create 33,000 new jobs and double cargo traffic, according to port director Bill Johnson, who led the drive to make the port a major logistics hub connecting Asia and Latin America. The project is in tandem with Miami International Airport and Florida's east coast rail link.
Miami is the only port south of Norfolk, Va., with congressional authorization to dredge to 50 feet. Other cities such as Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans are rushing to get hundreds of millions of dollars of projects funded and underway in time for the opening.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently completed a study showing Savannah's $652 million dredge is viable and is also studying the harbor at Charleston, and plans to finish dredging New York Harbor by 2014. The New York/New Jersey Port Authority set aside $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge to 64 feet so the large vessels can pass underneath.
Port Everglades, 30 minutes north of Miami, is also seeking permission to dredge its harbor to 50 feet.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson.; Additional reporting By David Adams. Editing by Andre Grenon)