Mayor Reed carries Georgia's harbor-deepening water in Washington

To wrest hundreds of million of dollars from Washington to deepen the port of Savannah, Georgia is relying not on its Republican governor or GOP-dominated congressional delegation, but a Democrat -- Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Thursday, Reed embraced his role as White House confidant before dozens of Georgia business and government officials gathered at the World Congress Center to push harbor-deepening and boost the port’s $8 billion annual economic impact on Atlanta and protect tens of thousands of jobs across the state.

“This is really about whether we want Atlanta to be a truly international city ... which is why I place all partisanship aside,” Reed said. “I’ll do everything I can to get this done.”

How does a deeper Savannah River 250 miles away benefit Atlanta? And why is Atlanta’s mayor taking the lobbying lead on the project?

Reed, in comments echoed by Home Depot CEO Frank Blake and other Atlanta business leaders at the downtown forum, said the deepening is perhaps Georgia’s most critical economic development project in the near term.

Nearly 130,000 full- and part-time jobs statewide depend on the export and import of chickens, electronics and cars through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick. The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) reported that metro Atlanta produced, shipped or received $8 billion worth of cargo that traversed the two ports during the past fiscal year.

Reed wants to boost the economy and jobs in Atlanta and position the city as a cargo and transportation crossroads, with Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the airborne complement to the ocean-going port of Savannah.

“I want Atlanta and the state of Georgia to be the logistics center for the Western Hemisphere,” the mayor said. “But we’re really going to have to compete because we have ports near us that certainly would like the [seaborne] traffic we’re trying to get.”

The GPA and Georgia’s congressional delegation are lobbying the White House to include $105 million in President Barack Obama’s upcoming budget to deepen Savannah’s harbor, and 36 miles of river, by six feet. Georgia taxpayers have already put up $102.3 million for the project. The Army Corps of Engineers, which just completed an exhaustive $40 million economic and environmental analysis of the deepening, puts the total cost of dredging at $551 million.

Savannah, like competing ports in Charleston, S.C., Jacksonville and Miami, is readying for an expansion of the Panama Canal that will allow ever-larger container ships to bypass West Coast ports for the East Coast by 2015. Atlanta-based Home Depot, for example, relies upon Savannah for one-fourth of its containerized imports.

“The Savannah port is critically important for us,” Blake said Thursday. “Neither we as a company, nor as a region, can afford to have ships pass us by.”

Four federal agencies are expected to sign off on the deepening within a year. Meanwhile, the lobbying in Washington intensifies.

Harbor-deepening dollars are typically divvied up by the corps via congressional earmarks. This year, though, deficit-minded House Republicans, including most of Georgia’s GOP delegation, have publicly forsworn earmarks. (U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson are less earmark-wary and have said they will seek harbor-deepening money anywhere.)

Finding the money to deepen Savannah’s harbor suddenly became more difficult. Harbor-backers in Washington and Georgia now hope Obama can help.

Obama, though, is a Democrat who lost Red State Georgia badly during his 2008 election and may be reluctant to accommodate the GOP-dominated state. Enter Reed, who holds a certain cachet among Democrats nationwide.

Reed “brings access to the White House and Democrats in Congress and makes this a nonpartisan issue,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “He gives it political credibility and gives us a much better chance of winning.”

Reed, in an interview Thursday, said he met four months ago at the White House with one of the president’s top domestic policy advisers to discuss the deepening. He brought along Alec Poitevint, a prominent Georgia Republican and the GPA's chairman, and Curtis Foltz, the ports’ executive director. Reed will make another White House pitch in January.

“It’s important that [Obama] include it in his budget because we believe the deepening is a national priority,” Reed said. “And it would be less subject to political turbulence” if earmarks aren’t involved.

Poitevint, like Reed, argues that Obama’s budgetary priorities could help boost the still-flagging economic recovery.

Reed offers the state access, Poitevint said, “but the truth of the matter is that this project gives President Obama a chance to step forward and be a leader and do what’s best for America.”