The congressional vote giving the go-ahead for Georgia’s biggest economic development project has unleashed a wave of lobbying in the statehouse, the White House and beyond to secure federal funds to deepen Savannah’s port for a new class of behemoth ships.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed will join Joe Biden on a trip to the Panama Canal on Monday in hopes of bending the vice president’s ear on the importance of Savannah’s dredging. Georgia’s congressional delegation is ratcheting up pressure. And Gov. Nathan Deal upped Georgia’s ante toward the project this week, partly to goad Washington into chipping in.
“I’d hate for the federal government to let the little state of Georgia embarrass them,” said Deal, “but we’re putting them in that posture if they don’t.”
The dredging project was first approved in 1999, long before Panamanian officials broke ground on an expansion project that will allow super-size ships to take the ocean-hopping shortcut. But the Savannah digging was delayed by political infighting, environmental battles and administrative delays that steadily inflated the project’s price tag.
Many of those hurdles were cleared in the past few years, and the biggest remaining roadblock was surmounted in October when the House voted to authorize, though not fund, a $662 million project deepening the channel from 42 feet to 47 feet. House and Senate lawmakers plan to soon hash out minor differences and send the bill to the White House, where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law.
Atlanta’s mayor has emerged as one of the biggest players, and Deal calls him the “pipeline to the White House” on the project. Reed’s support for investment in Savannah could be explained by a University of Georgia study that shows the ports of Savannah and Brunswick support 100,000 metro Atlanta jobs and contribute $39 billion to the state economy.
Reed is to travel with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the mayors of Baltimore and Philadelphia on a two-day trip to meet Panamanian officials and inspect the canal expansion. The journey is similar to a trip Deal took to the canal in September with a cadre of top state officials.
It’s intended to send the message that the fate of the Panama Canal has a direct impact on American jobs and economic growth, according to two White House officials. It also gives Reed a chance to remind Biden of his “come hell or high water” support for the Savannah dredging during a visit to the port in September.
“The port deepening will be Georgia’s largest economic development project and the positive impact on Atlanta cannot be overstated,” Reed said Friday. “The project will fuel the state, region and city’s economic growth, strengthen our global competitiveness” and boost the airport’s position as a leading logistics hub.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, said Friday he recently met with Army Corps of Engineers leaders and this week pressed Obama’s budget planners to include the project in his spending plan next year. He said the impact of the deepening “will be felt for generations as Georgia’s deepwater ports continue to drive our economy into the future.”
Yet there’s no guarantee the bigger ships would unload in Savannah once the dredging is complete. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review last year showed that 10 ports from New York to Miami to Houston plan $15 billion toward expansions over the next decade. Several anticipate or already boast deeper harbors than Savannah even after the digging.
State leaders, though, say not doing anything at all would be the worst move. Wary of being caught off guard, legislators have set aside $231 million toward the project’s cost, and Deal said this week he would ask for an additional $35 million. That would mean Georgia would have roughly 40 percent of the tally socked away before the digging begins.
“Georgia gets it. The entire state understands the importance of logistics, and we are extremely well prepared,” said Curtis Foltz, the head of the state ports agency. “Our Achilles’ heel for sure is the deepening and we’ve got to get that done.”