FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Local officials touted the merits of dredging Port Everglades to accommodate larger ships that will pass through an expanded Panama Canal during a Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization eTownhall meeting last Thursday.

During the meeting, residents were encouraged to ask any transportation questions to the participants, which included Richard Blattner, Chair of the Broward MPO; Barbara Sharief, Broward County Mayor; and U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  Residents could also view the meeting online or on TV as well as listen via telephone.

Officials were repeatedly asked about the economic and environmental impact of the $370 million dredging project, which will be mainly funded by the Army Corps of Engineers and Port Everglades.

Wasserman Schultz discussed her January trip with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to the Panama Canal.

“We were told that any port in the United States that wasn’t dredged to about 50 feet was going to be left behind economically,” said Wasserman Schultz of the widening of the Panama Canal to allow for supersized vessels with four times the tonnage of current ships.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved funding for a dredge to 47 feet but Port Everglades wanted to go deeper to make sure supersized ships could easily get into the port.  The Corps signed off another foot to 48 feet and the Broward County Commission approved funding the extra $9 million needed for the one-foot accommodation.  The Corps allows an extra two-feet allowance, which will ensure the dredging of Port Everglades will be 50 feet.

A final report from the Corps is expected by early next year and will be a crucial next step in the project.  Dredging could begin in early 2018.

“The entire Florida delegation is continuing to fight for funding approved for the full 48 feet,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Frankel also voiced her support for funding for the 48-feet dredging.

Fort Lauderdale, which is one of the biggest cargo ports in Florida, will lose a lot of business,” Frankel said.  “We would lose thousands of jobs and billions in dollars.”

Larger ships would not increase truck and train traffic congestion due to the completion this year of a $53 million, 42-acre intermodal container facility at the port, Sharief said. The facility would allow for cargo containers to be placed on railways and quickly leave the port at a faster rate, Sharief said.

“Larger ships will not impact traffic on the streets but will provide revenue generation through Port Everglades,” said Sharief.

For the past 18 years, Broward County has sought permission to deepen its port so the environmental impact of the dredging has been studied, Frankel said. Sixteen acres of sea grass and other plant life would have to be replaced and a coral reef would be transplanted before dredging began to maintain the environment.

“There is no question that our natural resources in south Florida are a huge part of our economy and important to who we are,” Frankel said.  “There is a careful balance between dredging that leads to tremendous economic activity and jobs and also preserving precious resources.”