As Key West business owners and residents prepare for next month's presentation on channel widening to accommodate larger cruise ships, a clearer picture emerges of the process required for federal authorization, not only of the project but the study that would assess its feasibility.
Two facts clearly emerge.
The proposed project could have quite a difficult time overcoming the ban on dredging in Key West's National Marine Sanctuary, and getting even a study approved by Congress could take years.
But also, key decisions on the project and the need for the study at the federal level would be made not on the basis of local needs and concerns, but those of the United States as a whole.
"When we do the analysis, we evaluate the national economic benefit and weigh it against the cost," said Army Corps of Engineers project manager Laurel Reichold. "We weigh those much higher, if not more completely, than regional economic benefits. Clearly there is a regional impact but when it comes to justification of the project this is what generally occurs ... The corps doesn't necessarily take into account the sponsor's likes or dislikes."
The proposed channel widening, Reichold said, is a first for the agency. Never before has the corps been asked to consider biting into the bottom of a national marine sanctuary. And the dredging --while a widening -- is from an engineering perspective still a dredging, and altering of the bottom.
"We would still need relief from the regulations against dredging in the marine sanctuary," Reichold said "That's never been done. So I have no idea how you would get that. The current regulation says you can't dredge deeper than the existing channel."
At issue is the contention that as cruise ships get bigger they will not be able to transit the 1-mile approach to Key West Harbor known as "Cut B." In years to come, they say, that will mean huge losses to some local businesses and to city coffers, particularly in the amount of money paid out by cruise companies in disembarkation fees.
The city's administration has already determined that an estimated $418,000 will be lost in the coming fiscal year due to ships canceling the Key West route as they go to other ports, not to be replaced by the larger ships, which cannot now travel the cut.
Other voices in the business community say their own interests are counter to those of accommodating the cruise ship industry and its beneficiaries in Key West, particularly fishing guides and others whose livelihoods depend on ecotourism.
That national interest might outweigh the question of whether the dredging is specifically good for Key West is not a surprise to City Commissioner Mark Rossi, a proponent of the dredging and a driving force behind approval of the authorization for a study.
"It is about what is good for the United States and commercial commerce," said Rossi. "That's what this whole thing is about and people don't want to get it."
From Rossi's perspectives, the interests of Key West and the nation are the same.
"It would be good for the economy of Key West, and it has to be done by the book and that's the way it would be done," Rossi said. "Nobody is trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. This is about a viable economic function for the city of Key West. That's what we have been saying for three to five years."
Three to five years could be the length of time it takes before a study authorization -- even if it was approved by Key West -- will be approved by Congress if at all.
According to Corps officials the $1.5 million required for the study on the federal end would have to be included in an appropriations bill.
"In order for us to start the study, Congress has to essentially authorize the project," Reichold said. "To say 'go forth and study.'"
In addition to the initial appropriation, the project would have to be included in a federal WRDA, Water Resources Development Act bill. And a WRDA has not been passed since 2007.
The $1.5 million is half the cost of the study. The remaining $1.5 million, according to Key West Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Virginia Panico, would be paid for not by the city itself but the state of Florida and private business interests.
Will Benson, a Key West flats fisherman affiliated with the Lower Keys Guides Association -- a charter fishermen's organization adamantly opposed to the dredging and the study -- says he pays a lot of money in federal taxes.
He doesn't want his federal or state tax dollars to pay for the study, even if city money will not be used. And he is convinced that the tax money spent on the project will go to waste, because the sanctuary rules will win out.
"I know already that cruise ship traffic coming in and out of Key West is hurting the fishing," he said. "And this project is not going to happen unless the Navy gets behind it."
Trice Denny, spokeswoman for the Naval Air Station at Key West, has said that the Navy supports the idea because it would make for safer navigation. But there are no indications that the Navy will "bang the drum" to help make the channel-widening happen.
"If the Navy doesn't bang the drum, so that it comes in through a defense bill, it is not going to happen," Benson said. "So we are wasting our money doing this study."
If the study were done, Benson said, he is certain his own organization's figures would help tell an important economic story.
"On my little side of things, being a fishing guide, my industry rivals the Florida citrus industry," Benson said. "Sport fishing in Florida has $7.5 billion worth of impact in this state and sustains 80,000 jobs. In the national interest, if you weigh what the potential is on developing a port by dredging at the expense of what already exists in the ecotourism activities, based on something that may or may or may not happen if you dredge the harbor, what is the smartest decision?"
The Chamber of Commerce will present its pitch for authorization of the channel widening study at a special meeting of the City Commission Oct. 17 at 6 p.m.
No action will be taken, but a resolution authorizing city steps to take steps necessary for the study to be done is likely within days of that. Commissioner Tony Yaniz says he will be listening carefully before making a decision.
"The concern a lot of people have is that once we open up the process and open the door it can't be closed," Yaniz said. "But what happens if we go ahead and then impact our industries and then 20 years from now the cruise ships don't come here anymore? If the impact to tourism, based on clean water and viable reefs, if we trade that in, how do we take that back?"