Savannah port to get more deepening money, governor says

Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he’ll likely recommend another $40 million to $50 million in state spending to deepen the Savannah River and harbor, the state’s major port and economic-development engine.

Last week the federal government gave final regulatory approval to deepen the river to 47 feet, from its current 42 feet, at a cost of $652 million.

Georgia has already put up $181 million for its cost-share portion of the deepening tab, including $47 million last year. Deal, during a brief interview following the annual State of the Ports luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta, said he’ll probably request a similar amount from the General Assembly come January.

“We haven’t finalized our figure yet,” the governor said, “but it’s safe to say we’ll be in keeping with what we’ve given in years past.”

Savannah is the nation’s fourth busiest container port and moved a record 3 million containers the last fiscal year. Nearly 100,000 jobs in metro Atlanta alone are directly tied to the distribution of goods that come through Savannah and the port at Brunswick.

Georgia taxpayers originally were on the hook for 30 percent of the deepening project’s cost, or roughly $196 million. Under the latest cost-sharing scenario, that figure rises to about 40 percent, or $261 million. Another $50 million allocation this winter would leave Georgia$30 million shy of its share of the cost.

Deepening — after 15 years of study and delay — could begin next summer. Congress must first allow Georgia to use its money first while awaiting the nearly $400 million expected from Washington.

“It’s time for the federal government to step up to the plate,” Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said during the luncheon sponsored by the Georgia Chamber. “We’re expecting large federal dollars in 2014. That’s absolutely critical.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a final “record of decision” last Friday allowing 32 miles of Savannah river and harbor to be deepened so ever-larger container ships can ply the waterway. Foltz called the decision “really great news for Georgia and anyone in the Southeast who uses our port for commerce.”

A passel of environmental groups, along with South Carolina legislators who fear competition for Charleston’s port if if Savannah’s is deepened, see it differently. Three separate legal challenges, wending through South Carolina courts, challenge the environmental safeguards promised for the Savannah project.

“They’re taking a river system already in trouble and just sending it over the edge,” said Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston.

Nearly half the deepening cost will be spent mitigating environmental damage, the Corps says.

“Those lawsuits will run their course,” Foltz predicted. “The federal government has everything in hand that they need to go forward.”

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