Ships are loaded and unloaded in the Port of Savannah. Following years of political wrangling and environmental concerns, the deepening of the Savannah River is one step closer to becoming a reality. Officials argue a deeper port is needed in order for Georgia to remain competitive and accommodate the larger class of ships. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM .

Savannah port backers look to federal budget talks for dredging funds

As the work to deepen the Savannah River channel officially reached its midpoint on Wednesday, state officials looked ahead to the next round of federal spending talks, which they hope will deliver the funds to ensure the project remains on schedule.

Completion of the outer harbor dredging marked a milestone for what is arguably Georgia’s biggest ongoing economic development project. But the project to deepen the river channel to 47 feet from 42 feet is about to enter a critical new phase with the inner harbor.

The Trump administration in its latest budget request called on Congress to set aside $49 million for dredging work for the 2019 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. But 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 in the weeks ahead for a broader Army Corps of Engineers 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.

Griff Lynch, the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said past money approved by Congress — and funds already allocated by state lawmakers — will keep the project on its 2021 completion timeline for now. But there is a risk the schedule could slip if money federal dollars can’t be found.

“It’s a risk on the timeline and in order to stay ahead we have to have the money,” he said.

Lynch and ports chairman Jimmy Allgood credited Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers for their commitments to the project, and also hailed the work of Georgia’s congressional delegation to push for more funding.

Lynch said Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, have been instrumental links to the White House, and Georgians within the Trump Administration remain key allies. The corps, they said, has done phenomenal work to get the project to where it is now.

Despite the optimism, Trump’s budget proposals for deepening the harbor have proven to be disappointments for the port so far, after it faced similar funding struggles under the Obama administration. After last month’s 2019 budget request included a lower-than-expected proposal for SHEP, Carter, Perdue and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson invited Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to tour the facility to “better understand its value to American business.”

Lynch said Trump’s 2019 budget request sent a signal the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP as it’s known, remains a national priority.

This spring, Congress is expected to finalize plans for fiscal 2018. That spending deal is expected to provide the port about $50 million, and lawmakers could add more to the Army Corps’ construction accounts in hopes money trickles down to Savannah.

The nearly $1 billion project will allow larger freighters to ply the waters of the Savannah River with more flexibility and with fuller loads, making shipping through the port more efficient. An Army Corps study has found the economic benefits to businesses and consumers of the deepening the river channel will more than outweigh the cost.

“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,” Deal said in a news release. Deal’s office included an additional $35 million in its fiscal 2018 budget to keep the project moving.

Savannah posted a record of nearly 4 million twenty-foot-equivalent units of cargo or TEUs in fiscal 2017. And exports — a Trump priority — grew by 7 percent in the last calendar year, ports officials said.

“The things we bring in don’t weigh as much as what we’re sending out,” Allgood said, meaning the deepening is vital to continued export growth.

At a conference in early February, Lynch said the ports authority is forming plans for a 10-year, $2.3 billion expansion that would more than double the container capacity in Savannah.

Port expansions would be paid for by operations not outlays by taxpayers.