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Mathews Bridge shutdown: Collision course

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Updated: 10/06/2013 12:39 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When the USNS 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin ship hit the Mathews Bridge in downtown Jacksonville Thursday, witnesses came to Action News wondering why a ship this size was heading downtown in the first place.

The USNS Martin sustained damage to a 106-ft port side king post on the back side, which witnesses say is much taller than most vessels that are normally docked at the North Florida Ship Yards in Tallyrand.

To find out, Action News went to Jim Hooks, the Deputy Commander for the Marine Corps Support Facility at Blount Island. The Marines slipway is where the USNS Martin and USNS Wheat have been docked side by side since October 2012.

"We afford them essentially free parking for those big ships," said Hooks. "The mouth of our slipway exits right out to the main channel of the St. Johns River."

Hooks said the Marines turned both ships over to the Navy last year, after they downsized due to budgeting issues.

Soon after, the USNS was brought back to Jacksonville from deployment in the Pacific.

An agreement between the Marines and Navy allowed the ships to remain docked in the slipway as part of a pre-positioning plan, so they could easily deploy them to crises around the world.

"If they weren't parked here the Navy would have to park them at a commercial facility somewhere and that's a lot of money from a taxpayer perspective."

Hooks says the ships were being moved out of the way of a big, upcoming project. Starting next week, the Marines will dredge their slipway due to a buildup in silt caused by fast moving tides.

"It's maintenance that we have to do once every year or two," says Hooks. "About seven months ago, we asked the Navy to move them and the dates were confirmed in the last few weeks. We told them be prepared to be gone for the month of October."

Hooks said the Navy's Military Sealift Command organized the move, and sources tell Action News the MSC hired Moran Towing to do all the work.

The USNS Wheat left the slip on Tuesday, followed by the USNS Martin on Thursday, to head to their temporary dock at the North Florida Ship Yards.

"Martin was under the tug's power and they pushed her and pulled her out of the slipway," says Hooks. "They started the work early Thursday morning."

Unlike the USNS Wheat, the USNS Martin did not clear the Mathews Bridge, something sources tell Action News it has successfully done before.

The MSC said it won't know how much damage was done, and the what the future of the USNS Martin will be, until the Coast Guard completes its investigation.

"They're going to use our slipway to park a couple of their ships in the future. We have a good relationship with them," said Hooks. "Now whether it continues to be the Martin or not, that's their call."
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