Gov. Deal signals approval to spend more to deepen Savannah River

3:18 p.m Friday, May 12, 2017 Business
A crowd of well-wishers along River Street welcome the container ship COSCO Development, Thursday morning, May 11, 2017, in Savannah, Ga, as the vessel sails up the Savannah River to the Port of Savannah. The ship is the largest vessel ever to call on the U.S. East Coast. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)

SAVANNAH — Governor Nathan Deal said Friday he supports providing additional state resources to finish the deepening of the Savannah River, and he expects the federal government to fulfill its promise to fund its share of the nearly $1 billion project.

Speaking to reporters after a welcoming ceremony for the Cosco Development, the largest container ship to ever call on an East Coast port, Deal said completing the project is vital to keeping the port competitive and to the state’s economy.

Biggest ship to ever port on East Coast, visits Savannah

“I support whatever is going to be necessary to complete this project in a timely fashion and if that’s what it takes I think the citizens, and the voters and the elected representatives in the General Assembly will be willing to do that extra part,” Deal said.

The Savannah River deepening took a hit last month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated its cost would climb 38 percent to $973 million and take two years longer to finish because of increased dredging costs and other complications.

The federal government has pledged to fund 75 percent of the project, which got started when the state put $266 million toward the initiative. The state’s share of the project could rise by about $67 million, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month.

“We are going to continue to ask the federal government to live up to their 75 percent share,” Deal said. “It’s a cooperative effort and we’re going to keep it that way.”

The governor said he is hopeful President Donald Trump will increase proposed appropriation of $47 million recommended by the Obama administration. He also said he is “pleasantly pleased” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is spearheading the dredging, has funding for “high priority” projects. Deal said the Savannah River deepening would qualify.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gov. Nathan Deal briefed reporters on Friday, May 12, 2017, at the Garden City Terminal at the Savannah port. Deal welcomed the Cosco Development, the largest container ship to ever port on the East Coast. J. Scott Trubey/strubey@ajc.com

During the economic downturn, the federal government funded infrastructure projects that were “shovel-ready” to help stimulate the economy, Deal said.

“We’re not only shovel-ready, we are dredge-ready,” he said. “We have dredges in operation. We just need to finish it. I think we’re going to get great cooperation from the Corps of Engineers. They’ve been great partners, by the way, to getting to this point.”

Trump has called for cuts in non-defense spending, but the president also appears open to public works projects, floating a $1 trillion infrastructure program.

In addition to increases in dredging costs and unique features of the design of the Savannah project, the corps has also had to deal with protests over contract awards, which has contributed to delays.

But the corps also found that the projected economic benefits of the project had grown, meaning the payback to the American economy will come quicker. The corps now projects a net annual benefit to the national economy of $282 million a year, up from $174 million.

Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch said crews expect to load and unload about 5,500 containers from the Cosco Development, a record from one ship for the Savannah port. He said the cranes will lift about 200 containers an hour.

The Development can hold more than 13,000 TEUs, or twenty-foot equivalent container units. The ship made its first East Coast port call in Virginia and will sail for Charleston next before returning to Asia.

Ports officials were asked by shipping customers three years ago to use computer models to determine if ships the size of the Development could make it through the narrow and curvy Savannah River channel. The river pilots and ports authority determined about 18 months ago that the approach could be done, Lynch said.

Ports officials have said a 14,000 TEU ship can be accommodated on the river, and Lynch said his agency is modeling whether even larger ships might be able to make 40-mile passage from the ocean to the port.

Savannah and other eastern ports have been working to expand their capacity in the wake of an expansion of the Panama Canal in an arms race for ever-larger ships. The state and the ports authority have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure on land and the dredging program.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gov. Nathan Deal speaks Friday, May 12, 2017, at the Garden City Terminal at the Savannah port at a ceremonny welcoming the Cosco Development, the largest container ship to ever port on the East Coast. J. Scott Trubey/strubey@ajc.com

Georgia’s ports system accounts for some $40 billion in estimated economic impact across the state, and directly or indirectly touch about 400,000 jobs. The Savannah port, the nation’s No. 4 container port by volume, saw its container volume grow by 5.6 percent in March from a year earlier.

Larger ships are more efficient, lowering transportation costs.

The dredging of the Savannah River is needed, Deal said, because “in the absence of the ability to dock one of those vessels, it may well mean we lose some of the containers we come here now.”

But the number of megaships transiting the Panama Canal hasn’t met some expectations, and that could pinch East Coast ports that spent big upgrading infrastructure expected new business.

Capt. Don Marcus, the president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots union, which represents tug captains and mates in the Panama Canal Zone, said there aren’t enough tug boats or crews to handle the number of super-freighters that many had hoped to go through the expanded canal.

Marcus said only about half the needed tugs are currently operating the Canal Zone needs to make its projections.

“The answer is more equipment and more trained personnel,” Marcus said.

Lynch said traffic through Panama to Savannah has been strong, and a project of that magnitude wouldn’t come without some headaches.

“It’s going to evolve,” Lynch said. “We have seen growth through the Panama Canal. It’s exactly what we’ve expected.”

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