Georgia Ports leaders seek more federal funds for Savannah River dredging

4:17 p.m Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 Business
J. Scott Trubey/STAFF
Six cranes load and unload containers Friday, May 12, 2017, at the Port of Savannah from the Cosco Development, what was at the time the largest container ship to ever call on an East Coast port. J. Scott Trubey/strubey@ajc.com

Georgia Ports Authority officials plan to hit Capitol Hill this week to press for more federal funding to deepen the Savannah River, and they’ll bring with them new figures to support their case that show record-breaking cargo traffic.

The Savannah port saw container traffic increase by nearly a third in October, setting a new monthly record as the bustling harbor continues to see larger vessels from the expanded Panama Canal.

GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch said the Savannah port moved 410,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) last month, up by 32 percent from October 2016. For the first 10 months of the calendar year, ports traffic is up about 12 percent by TEUs, Lynch said.

While the surge in shipping is great for Georgia and the nation’s economy, Lynch said the story could be even better if the feds will fulfill their commitment to funding the bulk of the deepening project.

“As great as the numbers are, and they are phenomenal, they aren’t telling the full story,” Lynch said. Because the river channel isn’t deep enough for the newest generation of freighters to ply the river with full loads, Lynch said, Savannah isn’t seeing as much cargo as the shippers would like to bring to the port.

“We are cutting the ships short because of the lack of water,” he said.

The Savannah River dredging is arguably Georgia’s biggest economic development project. But in April, the project’s price tag grew by 38 percent to $973 million.

Georgia’s ports system accounts for some $40 billion in estimated economic impact across the state, and directly or indirectly touches about 400,000 jobs. The Savannah port is the nation’s No. 4 container port by volume.

So far, the state has ponied up $266 million to get the project underway. But locals worry about the now $640 million federal share. In May, the Trump administration budget committed $50 million to the deepening project — up from about $43 million the prior year. But the feds failed to add any supplemental dollars to the program, much to Georgia officials’ disappointment.

Port boosters say the project needs about $100 million per year to stay on track.

Work to deepen the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet has already fallen behind. The project is expected to be completed in 2022.

Shipping companies are bringing giant Neo-Panamax vessels into the harbor at high tides, but they can’t be fully loaded.

Lynch said the port’s business growth could have been by 35 percent or more in October had the channel been at 47 feet.

Lynch said the ports delegation plans to meet with Georgia’s House and Senate delegation and with officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the deepening project, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A Corps of Engineers study previously found that, even with the higher total project cost, the Savannah River deepening project would provide a good return on public investment. The study found that for every public dollar spent, the nation would receive a return of $7.30, or $282 million annually, mainly from transportation cost savings.

That means consumers and businesses would save money on goods and services, said Jimmy Allgood, chairman of the GPA board.

“We need $100 million a year and we are not getting anywhere near that to help finish,” Allgood said. “It’s a lot of money, but there’s a lot of benefit from it.”

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