Port of Savannah could fall behind in race to attract cargo ships

Georgia’s major port is falling farther behind in a nationwide race to attract larger cargo ships, possibly endangering thousands of Atlanta jobs and millions in tax revenues.

Officials now acknowledge that deepening the port of Savannah to handle bigger ships would take at least two years longer than they predicted as recently as last year. If approved, it may take until 2019 — or longer — before the river is fully deepened.

The lengthy delay threatens to slow imports and exports at Savannah, the nation’s fourth busiest container port. Charleston — Savannah’s main competition — expects to deepen its harbor to 50 feet also by 2019.

Atlanta-based Home Depot, which operates a massive 1.4 million square foot distribution center near the port of Savannah, would like to see the project move forward faster.

“We believe it is critical to the port’s long-term competitiveness,” said spokeswoman Paula Drake. “The work should be done as soon as possible if the port is going to maintain its position as one of the nation’s leading supply-chain hubs.”

Congressional inaction and additional environmental concerns remain impediments to a deepened Savannah River.

“We’re concerned every day that this project is further delayed,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Yet some maritime experts say Savannah’s advantages – its network of warehouses, proximity to Atlanta and southeastern consumers, rail and interstate access – should mollify customers who might look elsewhere to unload cargo.

“Savannah is a very important port; the shipping lines will adjust themselves,” said Asaf Ashar, a maritime expert at the University of New Orleans. “The bigger vessels will continue to go to Savannah (even if) they are not fully loaded. … I would not be worried if I were in Savannah.”

Big ships are coming

Georgia officials asked the federal government in 1996 to study the deepening of the Savannah river and harbor. The target date was 2014, the year the Panama Canal was to be expanded to handle jumbo-sized cargo ships each laden with 8,000 to 9,000 containers bound for the East Coast. Savannah sought a depth of 48 feet, six feet deeper than the current depth, to allow larger and heavier vessels to run the river.

Georgia officials grew frustrated with the lengthy environmental, economic and engineering studies undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 2011, Foltz said, “Our customers will be patient, but their patience won’t last forever.”

Finally, last fall, the corps blessed the project, but said the river should be deepened to only 47 feet from its current 42 feet. Panamanian officials soon announced that their isthmus-deepening project wouldn’t be finished until April 2015. Foltz then pushed his prediction for Savannah’s completion date to 2016.

More delays ensued. South Carolina conservationists sued last year to halt the project until environmental issues could be resolved. The two sides agreed to a compromise this spring, but time was lost.

The deepening of Savannah’s port, which along with the port of Brunswick supports 100,000 jobs across metro Atlanta, has been further delayed by congressional inaction.

Ports up and down the East and Gulf coasts race to deepen harbors in anticipation of the Panama Canal’s expansion. The ports of Baltimore and Norfolk are already 50 feet deep. Miami expects to be ready for the big ships by the end of 2015.

Savannah is not unique in the hassles faced deepening its port. Within the last year, the ports of New York/New Jersey and Jacksonville have pushed back completion dates.

Maritime experts, bolstered by an investigation last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also question whether all these East and Gulf coast ports need to deepen. While the shipping lines introduce larger and larger ships, and the global economy is expected to grow, the deepen-it-and-they-will-come strategy remains risky, according to Ashar and others.

A dozen ports between Houston and Boston are spending more than $15 billion in hopes of attracting more Asian cargo. Savannah alone plans on spending $686 million, mostly tax dollars.

Charleston wants to deepen 29 miles of river and ocean channels and expects feasibility studies to be completed next year with a recommendation to Congress in 2015. Construction could take another three or four years, said Brian Williams, the project manager with the corps in Charleston. South Carolina legislators have already set aside $300 million of the project’s $300-350 million cost.

Foltz, the Georgia ports executive, doubts South Carolina’s project will go so smoothly.

“It took us almost 20 years to get our (deepening ) approved,” he said. “It will be an extreme challenge to expect Charleston’s project to be completed or even started before our completion. But time will tell.”

Waiting on Congress

Charleston will be a test case for Washington’s new-found desire to speed up deepening projects. The corps is notoriously slow studying and expanding harbors. Even a delayed Charleston project, though, could come on line about the time Savannah welcomes the first big ship, said South Carolina state Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston.

“The shipping lines and the importers and exporters of the world realize that we can get to 50 feet with less problem than other eastern ports,” he said.

Georgia is still waiting for final congressional re-authorization for its deepening project. The Senate passed a massive water infrastructure bill in May that, in essence, blessed the deepening project. House passage, though, remains in limbo.

If Congress passes and the president signs the water bill this year, digging could begin in early 2014. Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the corps in Savannah, said the project will then take four to five years.

But there’s no guarantee a spending-averse House of Representatives will approve the water bill, which, in the past, has been larded with pet projects. A legislative waiver, allowing the re-authorization later, is under discussion on Capitol Hill, which would allow the Savannah project to move forward.

Still, roadblocks abound. The Savannah corps, for example, must prove that the river’s aquatic life won’t be unduly harmed by the deepening.

Before construction begins, the corps will test specialized “bubblers” that pump oxygen into the river’s lower reaches so that Atlantic sturgeon can breathe. Conservationists and South Carolina officials can stymie the deepening — and further delay it — if they determine the so-called Speece cones don’t work.

“Most people think that plugging a bunch of bubblers into the Savannah River is a little sketchy,” said Rep. Merrill. “I would be very leery that this is going to work.”

The corps’ Birdwell expressed confidence that the bubblers “are going to work. If they don’t work exactly the way we anticipate … we can tweak the system.”

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