Putnam County might be an inland county, but lawmakers are clearing the way for the county to board the state seaport council.
A bill from Sen. Keith Perry (SB 1038) would allow Putnam County to request a grant to conduct a port feasibility study and add the county to the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development (FSTED) Council. The bill disembarked on the House floor Thursday, and members unanimously passed the bill Friday.
Palatka Republican Rep. Bobby Payne, who ferried an analogous bill (HB 907) through the House committee process, told representatives the bill would help the county access state grants if the county port authority earns a permanent spot on the council.
“The goal of Senate Bill 1038 is to recognize the Putnam County Port Authority and its facility at the Palatka barge berth as a public port in the state of Florida in order to encourage economic growth for the region,” Payne said.
Representatives from Florida’s 15 public seaports plus the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Department of Economic Opportunity currently make up the FSTED Council. Seaports on the council get access to state grants some transportation experts say have helped boost the state’s shipping industry since the council’s creation.
Senators approved the measure 37-1 last month, when Tampa Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz was the lone Senator to vote against the measure.
“This bill would enable Putnam County to obtain FSTED funding to build a multimodal regional transportation hub and port in the heart of a designated economically distressed community,” Perry told Senators.
Perry explained that the port is one of the oldest in Florida. He previously told a Senate panel Palatka was a transportation hub starting in the early 1880s.
Palatka, along the St. Johns River, is home to the Putnam County Barge Port. The port is located about 60 miles upstream from Jacksonville and is accessible by CSX rail line and U.S. Highway 17.
The Putnam County Commission has plans, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, to dredge a 12-foot-deep, 5,000-foot-long channel to improve vessel navigation and safety and increase the number, size and capacity of vessels using the barge port. With storms over the last 10 to 15 years, a previous dredging has filled with silt to its current depth of 7 feet, TranSystems Vice President and former JaxPort CEO Rick Ferrin told the Putnam County Board of Commissioners in December.
“At that very shallow depth, it precludes use by anything other than very shallow-draft barges and recreational vessels, and that doesn’t do much for business,” Ferrin said.
Perry’s bill would, until July 2024, allow Putnam County to apply for a feasibility study on the possibility of establishing a port in the county. If the study comes back unfavorably, Putnam County would be removed from the FSTED Council.
An amendment approved Thursday clarifies that FSTED would have to approve Putnam County’s feasibility study.
The FSTED Council, housed within FDOT, helps implement seaport capital improvement projects at the local level. Grant funding under the program is limited to specific types of port facilities or port transportation projects. Included within that list is seaport master or strategic plan development or updates.
Since the Legislature established the council in 1990, the council and grants have been largely responsible for the growth of Florida’s seaports, Ferrin said in December.
“We’re not talking about tens of millions of dollars that have gone to ports or even hundreds of millions of dollars that have gone to ports. We’re talking about billions of dollars that have gone to Florida ports,” Ferrin said. “When you take a look at where the ports are today and where they were in 1991, the growth is absolutely immense.”
The bill, which would take effect July 1, next sets sail for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk