A new $30 million cargo facility at the Port of Jacksonville won't open until later this summer, but trains began pulling in Sunday loaded with military gear.
The U.S. Army is breaking in the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility at Dames Point, going through readiness exercises in which military personnel unload heavy equipment from rail cars and onto a nearby ship.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Walters, commander of the 832nd Transportation Battalion, said preparedness is a priority for top Army leaders and this exercise allows the units to deploy as if they are shipping overseas. He said about 300 soldiers are deployed to the port to move about 760 pieces of equipment.
Multiple U.S. Army units, including the 832nd Transportation Battalion based in Jacksonville, from multiple bases are working together on the exercise to train in loading ocean-bound military cargo.
The Army has conducted similar exercises in Jacksonville before, although the last one was in 2000, Walters said.
The military already uses the Jacksonville port to move cargo for national defense, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
"It's an important component of our business," Jacksonville Port Authority CEO Brian Taylor said. "It's not the biggest component of our business, but what we're doing here is really a critical link in the military supply chain, and it helps us serve the war fighters wherever they are around the world."
He said the military accounts for about 22,000 tons of equipment being shipped through Jacksonville's port annually.
Jacksonville was used during deployment of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, Walters said, and about 700 pieces of equipment were shipped from Jacksonville to North Africa during the fight against Ebola.
In a "full state of war," Walters said, it is envisioned that the vast majority of the equipment would be moved by rail.
The funding for the facility includes $10 million from the federal government and $20 million from the state. The transfer facility is considered a key addition at the port, allowing shipping companies to load and unload containers onto railways close to the dockside, speeding up the process and reducing trucks on roadways.
Two-wheeled cranes will load and unload containers from rail cars on tracks alongside truck lanes, allowing for the quick, direct transfer. Then, either the trucks take the incoming containers to nearby shipping terminals or rail cars take the outgoing shipment to its next destination on land.
U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, said Jacksonville is one of the nation's strategic ports. He said the intermodal facility, and the port, are investments in national security and economic development, particularly with a growing population in Florida.
Yoho said the project was finished early and under budget.
Taylor said the port authority board will vote this month on awarding a contract to Ceres Terminals to manage the intermodal facility for commercial cargo shipments.