Federal study: Southern ports need money to deepen

Savannah and other southern ports have "the most critical" need for money to deepen harbors for super-sized cargo ships expected to ply the world's oceans by late 2014, according to a federal maritime agency report released Thursday.

But the study, done for Congress by the research arm of the Army Corps of Engineers, doesn't conclude which ports deserve federal dollars to handle the huge container ships. Nor did the Institute of Water Resources say where the money should come from -- the federal government, states, port authorities or shipping lines.

Savannah expects final federal approval this fall to deepen 38 miles of river and harbor so that bigger ships can reach its docks and warehouses. Georgia has committed $180 million of the proposed $652 million cost. Washington, theoretically, would pay the rest.

Charleston also wants to deepen its port, and South Carolina has set aside $180 million to deepen the harbor there to 50 feet.  Savannah's project would likely go to 47 feet , a depth that could restrict larger, fully laden vessels from calling on the port.

"The Southeast is projected to be the fastest growing demographic region in the U.S. (so) the country's most urgent need in support of the canal expansion lies here in the Southeast," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "Southeastern ports, collectively, including both Savannah and Charleston, need greater capacity, expanded harbor ways and road and rail improvements."

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked the Corps six months ago to help determine which ports should get federal deepening dollars.

By 2014, at the earliest, the Panama Canal will have expanded its passageways so that "super post-Panamax" ships sailing from Asia can more readily reach East Coast ports.

Graham's request followed Congress' public disavowal of earmarks, the legislative practice of financing pet projects outside the full appropriations process. Graham, who couldn't be reached Thursday, enlisted the Corps to help lay the groundwork for a national port strategy that would pick winners and losers.

At the time, Graham told the AJC: "We're trying to create a merit-based system where ports can make their case for funding that's not based on the politics of the Obama administration or parochial politics."

The Corps' report noted that 17 ports nationwide are in various stages of harbor deepening studies. The ideal depth, according to the Corps, is 50 feet. West coast ports naturally reach that depth. On the East Coast, only Norfolk and New York are that deep, while Baltimore will soon get there.

"There is currently a lack of post-Panamax capacity at U.S. Gulf and South Atlantic ports – the very regions geographically positioned to potentially be most impacted by the expected changes in the world fleet," wrote Robert Pietrowsky, director of the Institute for Water Resources.

The Corps, which is determining whether the 17 ports should be deepened, pegs the cost of expansions in the Southeast alone -- mainly Charleston, Savannah, Miami and Jacksonville -- at $3 billion to $5 billion.

The AJC reported earlier this year that 10 container ports along the east and Gulf coasts plan $15 billion in public and private investments, a maritime arms race that critics say is unnecessarily costly. Steve Ellis,