Vice President Joe Biden swept into Savannah’s bustling port Monday and gave Georgia politicians seeking his support for a massive dredging project everything they had hoped. Well, everything but the promise of federal dollars for the $662 million effort.
The vice president unequivocally endorsed deepening the channel of the Savannah River and harbor to clear the way for larger ships, a sign of White House support for the state’s biggest economic development endeavor. Biden said it was one of a handful of infrastructure investments that would ensure the U.S. doesn’t lag behind international competitors.
“We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water,” Biden said.
State officials, who have said they are ready to start spending more than $200 million they have socked away for the project, celebrated Biden’s endorsement as the latest sign that the deepening is inevitable. Several expressed hope that the vice president’s support could also buoy long-stalled legislation to authorize the project that seems suddenly on the fast track.
“We’ve got the full backing of the administration,” said Curtis Foltz, the head of Georgia’s port system, who added with a smile: “I was looking for him to give us a check, but short of that we couldn’t be happier.”
The deepening of the harbor has united Georgia’s political class like few other issues, thanks to its sweeping economic impact on Georgia. The port and its cousin in Brunswick support 100,000 metro Atlanta jobs, according to a University of Georgia study, and hundreds of thousands more across the state.
Dredging the waterway from 42 feet to 47 feet would allow bigger ships through the expanded Panama Canal to dock in Savannah and help the port compete with rivals such as Charleston, S.C., which plans to deepen its harbor to 50 feet.
“(Those ships) can’t operate with consistency in ports that are 42 feet deep,” Biden said. “What are we talking about? What don’t we understand? What more do we have to know to generate the kind of economy that this nation deserves?”
Deepening was first floated as an idea in 1996, but environmental complaints, political scraps and bureaucratic delays have complicated the project for years. So has competition from rivals such as Charleston, whose dredging project Biden also blessed Monday.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed credited recent progress to a unified political front.
“It shows how far we have taken this issue,” Reed said after Biden’s speech.
Reed, the Georgia Democrat with the closest ties to the Obama administration, shared the stage with GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and a handful of lawmakers from both parties. One notable absence was Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, whose office cited a scheduling conflict.
Georgia’s leading politicians will now channel their energy into securing a legislative victory. The U.S. Senate has already passed waterways legislation that would authorize the project, and House leaders expect a vote in their chamber by next month. No work can get started on the project until that legislation is approved.
Biden didn’t address those details in a speech that echoed last year’s frequent campaign homages to blue-collar workers. He pressed for a sense of urgency for these types of infrastructure improvements, the types of investment that both create and sustain jobs.
“What are we doing? We’re arguing about whether or not to deepen this port? It’s time we get moving. I’m sick of this,” he said. “Folks, this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s an economic issue.”
Georgia’s leaders are just as eager. The state has already set aside $231 million for the project and could add an additional $30 million to that sum next year. Deal said in an interview he is pushing the Obama administration to use state dollars next year to begin dredging the port regardless of whether federal funding comes through.
And lawmakers are optimistic that Biden’s backing will help them secure at least some federal funding for the dig.
“I like our odds,” Isakson said with a grin.
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