Savannah port project gets small boost in Obama budget

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal included just $1.28 million to deepen the Savannah River, a drop in the bucket for the $652 million port project deemed critical to Atlanta’s economic development.

But a line item in the president’s budget is a valued toehold in the federal funding process. The real work for backers of the project is ahead: Congress must authorize the project at its current price — inflated above initial estimates — before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can begin digging. The Senate is now considering such a bill.

“I am obviously disappointed,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “We wanted significant funds. That certainly would be in the multiples of tens of millions of dollars. That, to me, is progress and would’ve significantly advanced a critical infrastructure project for this nation’s recovery. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.”

Obama’s budget request, submitted to Congress on Wednesday, will fund pre-construction engineering and design work for the harbor expansion project. It keeps the federal money flowing but includes less than half the amount proposed by the president last year.

Georgia taxpayers already have put up $231 million of the $652 million price, and the state will need to come up with an additional $30 million under the federal-state formula to deepen ports. The rest, nearly $400 million, is supposed to come from Washington.

“The federal government has funded only a small fraction of its obligations, and we would like to see more and quicker progress on this front,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in a statement.

Most deepening proponents still expect Washington to fund the project.

“I am pleased that the administration continues to have a placeholder in the budget for the port of Savannah and has maintained the commitment to keep it there,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, in a statement. “It is our state’s top economic development project.”

The state’s two seaports, at Savannah and Brunswick, pump an estimated $39 billion annually into the state’s economy, according to a University of Georgia economic impact report. Roughly 100,000 jobs across the metro Atlanta region depend upon goods flowing in and out of the ports.

Savannah is the nation’s fourth busiest container port and second largest on the East Coast. It handled 3 million steel boxes last year. Georgia officials and the Corps have settled upon a depth of 47 feet for the Savannah River. The 38-mile river channel is now mostly 42 feet deep.

The Corps expects a deepened river to result in an annual net benefit of $174 million, money largely saved by shipping companies able to more readily reach the port.

Opponents, including environmentalists and South Carolina officials, question the economic benefits and environmental safeguards proposed by the Corps. Several lawsuits seek to thwart the Savannah deepening project.

South Carolina, Georgia and environmental officials have been meeting with a federal mediator the last few months in Charleston in an effort to iron out differences. Opponents on the north side of the Savannah River have threatened a lawsuit if no agreement is reached.

More crucial than the president’s budget for the Savannah project is congressional action on the Water Resources Development Act which authorizes Corps projects, including Savannah’s deepening.

Last month, the $5.9 billion WRDA bill breezed through a Senate committee. It’s unclear when the bill will come to the Senate floor.

On the House side, the bill is a major priority for Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., but he is “still gathering input” according to spokesman Jim Billimoria.

The bill would allow the Corps to change the authorized cost of port projects, a win for Savannah as the cost estimates for the harbor expansion have risen over time.

Wednesday’s budget proposal, though, didn’t sit well with Georgia legislators who note that the deepening project was first studied more than 15 years ago.

“Last June, the Obama Administration touted its commitment to expediting the deepening (of) Savannah’s harbor,” U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, said in a statement. “Today it failed to honor that commitment by continuing to slow walk this project. What happened to ‘we can’t wait’?”

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