Valdosta Daily Times

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November 20, 2012

Deal wants more port money, focus shifts to feds

ATLANTA — When the Georgia Assembly convenes in January, Gov. Nathan Deal will ask lawmakers to commit another $50 million toward deepening the river channel to the Port of Savannah to improve navigation for giant cargo ships.

The expected legislative approval would go toward the state’s planned $231 million share of the $652 million project, which federal authorities have approved but not yet fully financed.

With the governor’s announcement before a Georgia Port Authority meeting, the focus immediately shifts to securing the balance of the cost from Congress, where federal lawmakers remained locked in a stalemate over fiscal policy that goes well beyond a single state’s wish list.

“In this atmosphere, everything is difficult,” said U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican whose district includes the Port of Savannah.

But Kingston and other state authorities said they remain optimistic that the long-planned project will meet muster on Capitol Hill.

Kingston cited years of environmental assessments, plans for environmental mitigation, economic estimates that suggest a strong return on investment and the state’s existing as factors that could elevate the Savannah plan over competing projects.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said that despite the budget standoff, the state has gotten “numerous good indicators” recently. “This process moves slow, but the good news is that it’s moving steady now,” he said.

The project has been a Georgia priority for 16 years, but the Army Corps of Engineers gave its blessing only weeks ago. President Barack Obama has included the dredging and expansion on his administration’s list of top infrastructure priorities nationally. But Congress won’t deliver any federal tax dollars to it until fiscal 2014, at the earliest, and the Army Corps’ budget requests are often not fully funded.

Kingston said the next key measure will be whether the White House includes the project in the budget blueprint that Obama submits to Congress. That document is due in early February. He said he has spoken with the president and personally lobbied Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Plans call for deepening a 38-mile channel of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean. By scooping 5 feet of mud and sand from the riverbed, navigable waters would go from 42 feet to 47 feet. Work is set to begin next year using existing state funds.

The Army Corps says that $292 million will go to environmental mitigation. That includes a new river bypass for marine wildlife and new wetlands to replace what will be lost from saltwater intrusion.

The timing is pegged to a planned expansion of the Panama Canal that is scheduled to be operational in 2015. Ports throughout the U.S. East Coast want to ensure that their facilities can accommodate the massive cargo carriers that will begin using the upgraded canal.

The Savannah project has produced a rare bipartisan front among Georgia officials. The entire congressional delegation and Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss have endorsed the plan. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat who is close to the Obama administration, has also helped push the project in Washington.

Robinson referred to a “tag-team effort” by the Democratic mayor and the Republican governor, himself a longtime congressman before his statewide election in 2010.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the port authority, said he hopes the unified front helps Georgia secure the rest of the money.

Kingston said, “Any crack in our team could be exploited by other states” fighting for their own projects.

The port at Charleston, S.C., one of Savannah’s nearest and fiercest competitors, plans to deepen its navigation channel from 45 to 50 feet. Port and elected officials in South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, have opposed the Savannah project. Environmental groups have filed three legal challenges to the project that are pending in South Carolina courts.

 

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