Deal, Reed boost Savannah port expansion

Metro Atlanta businesses shipped $9.5 billion in cargo through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick during the last fiscal year, an 18 percent annual increase that state officials offered as proof Tuesday of the need to upgrade Georgia’s seagoing gateways to the world.

Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also sought to reassure business and government officials that the deepening of the Savannah River, stuck in regulatory mud and financial uncertainty, will move forward next year.

Reed met senior Obama administration officials last Sunday to, in part, discuss federal funding for the proposed $600 million deepening of the river and harbor.

“The president understands the importance of deepening the Savannah port, and the administration is working in a cooperative fashion with the state of Georgia,” the mayor said in an interview Tuesday after the annual State of the Ports luncheon at the downtown Marriott Marquis hotel. “I believe very strongly we will be successful in securing funds to develop the port in time to give [Georgia] a comparative advantage in the Southeast.”

Time is running short for Savannah, and a handful of competing East Coast ports, to deepen harbors to accommodate ever-larger cargo ships expected to ply the Atlantic Ocean by 2015. Expansion of the Panama Canal by late 2014 will let the big ships choose which ports to patronize. Lower shipping costs, big revenues and jobs are at stake.

Georgia, with the concurrence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, seeks to deepen the Savannah River and harbor from 42 feet to 48 feet, a deep enough draft for ships that can carry more than 10,000 of the steel box containers.

Savannah is the nation’s fourth busiest container port and its fastest growing. Two-thirds of its cargo comes from the 28-county metropolitan Atlanta region. Fulton County businesses, for example, shipped $4.1 billion in products through Savannah and Brunswick last year.

“Elected officials from both sides of the aisle and business leaders from all corners of the state understand the significance the ports have as an economic engine,” Deal said.

The political comity, though, doesn’t extend across the Savannah River into South Carolina. That state’s environmental agency last month denied a permit sought by the Corps of Engineers to deepen 32 miles of the Savannah River.

The agency, per the corps’ request, will reconsider its permit denial by Nov. 10. Alec Poitevint, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority board, said Tuesday he was “guardedly optimistic” that South Carolina will drop its regulatory opposition.

Meanwhile, Govs. Deal and Nikki Haley of South Carolina will meet again next month to try to resolve the deepening impasse. S.C. officials worry that a booming Savannah port will leave Charleston’s port further behind.

“It is to the states’ mutual benefit that we work cooperatively together,” Deal said Tuesday at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce-sponsored luncheon.

Georgia has committed $134 million to deepen the Savannah harbor, and the governor will request another $46.7 million from the General Assembly in the upcoming budget. Deal, Reed and others hope Congress will come through with tens of millions of additional dollars next year to further finance the massive dredging project, which could take four years to finish.

Estimated value of Atlanta-area cargo through Georgia's ports in fiscal 2011

Fulton -- $4.1 billion

Gwinnett -- $1.6 billion

Cobb -- $936 million

Fayette -- $551 million

DeKalb -- $534 million

Source: Georgia Ports Authority