Vice President vows Savannah dredging will happen ‘come hell or high water’

“What are we doing? We’re arguing about whether or not to deepen this port?” said Biden. “It’s time we get moving. I’m sick of this. Folks, this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s an economic issue.”

He didn’t promise any federal funding to the project, viewed as Georgia’s top economic development priority. But state officials, who already set aside more than $200 million for their share, were overjoyed by the vice president’s unabashed backing.

The push to carve another 5 feet in depth along a 38-mile channel of the Savannah River and harbor is one of the rare issues that has united Georgia politicians of all stripes. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a prominent Democrat, shared the stage with Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.

The port and its cousin in Brunswick support 100,000 metro Atlanta jobs and, according to a University of Georgia study, constitute a $39 billion economic boost for the state. Deepening the waterway from 42 feet to 47 feet would allow bigger ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal to dock in Savannah and keep the port competitive with rivals.

“(Those ships) can’t operate with consistency in ports that are 42 feet deep,” said Biden. “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?”

The deepening project has been in political limbo almost since Georgia officials first asked the federal government to study the deepening of the Savannah River and harbor in 1996. Environmental complaints, political infighting and bureaucratic delays held up the project for years.

Competition from rivals, too, has complicated matters. Leaders in Charleston, S.C., which Biden visited earlier Monday, are planning to deepen a 29-mile channel to 50 feet by the end of the decade. And other seaports up and down the East Coast are lobbying for funding and support to expand their harbors.

Signs of recent momentum have given Georgia new hope. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the dredging its blessing last year. The U.S. Senate passed waterways legislation earlier this year that authorizes the project, though it doesn’t guarantee any funding, and House leaders expect a vote in their chamber by October. No work can get started on the project until that legislation is approved.

State officials were optimistic that could soon be secured.

“We’ve got the full backing of the administration,” said Curtis Foltz, the head of Georgia’s port system. “I was looking for him to give us a check, but short of that we couldn’t be happier.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson said he’s already at work on the funding front.

“I like our odds,” he said.

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