Deal says he has firmer resolve to back Savannah River dredging

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA — Gov. Nathan Deal came away from an inspection of the Panama Canal expansion Monday vowing to exploit the full powers of his office to make sure that the dredging of Savannah’s port starts next year, even without Washington’s financial backing.

Deal said the trip has given him a firmer resolve to back the port’s deepening, already Georgia’s top economic development priority. The canal’s expansion is expected to bring a surge of new traffic to East Coast ports, and Savannah is maneuvering to take advantage.

“I want it underway next year,” Deal said in an interview. “I’m hopeful that last remaining vote in Congress will take place soon this year and we’ll get the sign off to start spending our money and begin to lobby for federal funding.”

The governor and about a dozen members of the Georgia Ports Authority toured the length of the canal on Monday, venturing from the great Pacific locks under construction on the southern end of the nation to the Atlantic gates across the isthmus.

The $5.2 billion canal expansion will allow ever-larger “post-Panamax” container ships to chug through the oceanic link as soon as 2015, and Savannah and other East Coast ports are hustling to get deeper to accommodate the expected crush of new cargo.

The notion of dredging Savannah’s harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet has been in the works since the 1990s, but it’s been stalled by environmental concerns, administrative delays and political gamesmanship.

Yet a sense of inevitability has seized state officials in recent months. Federal lawmakers seem likely to vote on a long-stalled bill to authorize the project next month and Vice President Joe Biden gave the White House’s blessing last week, saying the deepening will happen “come hell or high water.”

The floodgates haven’t opened yet, though, and the feds haven’t promised a dime in funding for the $662 million project. But Deal said Monday he will ask for Washington’s permission to start using $231 million in state funds socked away for the project.

If Georgia gets the go-ahead, state officials believe construction can begin by next spring and finished by 2017, two years after the expanded canal’s projected opening.

“We’ll still be behind schedule, but the faster we can get started, the better,” Deal said. Then, motioning to the work underway to double the canal’s capacity, he said, “This makes our venture even more important.”

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