Finally, after nearly two decades of engineering and environmental studies, bureaucratic delays and political shenanigans, the 41-mile long deepening of the Savannah River can begin. (Video by Brant Sanderlin, Ryon Horne/AJC)

Savannah harbor deepening project reaches its midpoint

State leaders announced Wednesday the deepening of the Savannah River has reached a key milestone with completion of outer harbor dredging.

The nearly $1 billion project to deepen the Savannah River to 47 feet from 42 feet is arguably Georgia’s biggest ongoing economic development project, as cargo shipped in and out of Savannah touches jobs from Valdosta to Chickamauga.

Port officials say the deeper channel will allow newer generations of larger freighters to ply the waters of the Savannah River with more flexibility and with fuller loads, making shipping through the port more efficient. Full completion of the inner harbor is now expected in late 2021.

While the state has committed hundreds of millions to the project, the funds needed from the federal government to keep the mammoth project on schedule haven’t fully materialized.

The Trump administration in its latest budget request called on Congress to set aside $49 million for dredging work by the Army Corps of Engineers for the 2019 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That’s roughly half of what boosters say they need to keep the project on track.

Georgia lawmakers say they are pushing for more funding, but the earmark ban effectively ties Congress’ hands when it comes to setting aside money for specific projects such as Savannah. Congress could approve more money for a broader Army Corps construction account, but it’s bureaucrats who would have the ultimate discretion for whether that money goes to the project. The feds passed on giving the project additional dollars last year.

“The Port of Savannah is already the second busiest port in the nation for exports and the timely completion of this project will be a major step forward for our nation’s infrastructure,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in a news release. Deal’s office included an additional $35 million in its fiscal 2018 budget to keep the project moving.

“Deepening the port, along with other investments to create the nation’s strongest statewide logistics network, will make American exports more competitive abroad and benefit businesses in every corner of the state,” he said.

Georgia’s inland and coastal ports are vital cogs in the state’s economy. 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 ports are currently crafting plans for a massive expansion of its container capacity in Savannah and Brunswick.

This story will be updated later today. 

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