Georgia officials ink long-awaited Savannah port deepening agreement

Gov. Nathan Deal and other state officials on Wednesday signed a long-awaited federal agreement clearing the way for the deepening of the Savannah River, the state’s most critical economic development project in decades, to start by the year’s end.

The long-awaited agreement came after 20 years of environmental delays, regulatory hurdles and political shenanigans. It was welcomed, four weeks before the election, by Deal and dozens of local and federal lawmakers who hailed the $706 million pact as a bipartisan success.

“This may go down as one of the most historic days in the history of our great state,” said Deal, adding: “We’re going to start moving dirt instead of shuffling papers.”

Significant hurdles still remain before larger container ships begin plying the winding Savannah River channel. Workers must complete massive dredging and engineering projects, along with environmental mitigation work to protect endangered plants and animals. Some $400 million must still be obtained from Washington to scoop out 41 miles of channel and make it five feet deeper.

Georgia lawmakers have already set aside $266 million into the project in hopes of getting the work started even without the federal funds. Deal said Georgia workers should shovel the first scoop before the end of the year.

The announcement took place at Home Depot’s logistics center in Locust Grove, a sprawling facility about as large as a suburban shopping mall. The setting was intended to highlight how the deepening of Savannah’s port will also boost Atlanta’s economy.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said no one involved in the project figured it would take this long to succeed. But he said it shows the benefits of persistence and bipartisanship.

“We were pulling together in a way that I haven’t seen since I got involved in politics,” said Reed.

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