Backers optimistic about federal Savannah harbor deepening funds


Previously: The state is deepening part of the Savannah River to make way for larger ships that will come through the soon-to-be-complete Panama Canal expansion.

The latest: The project appears to be on track for $85 million to $90 million in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

What's next: The draft bill will be considered on the floor of the Senate next week.

WASHINGTON —Backers of the Savannah harbor deepening are feeling more optimistic about the venture’s finances after seeing a new U.S. Senate spending bill this week that included more funding for such projects.

Boosters said it appears to be on track for the $85 million to $90 million they say is needed in the budget year that begins Oct. 1 to keep construction work on schedule.

The tone is notably upbeat after years of financial fits and starts for the $706 million deepening, which is known as the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP.

Georgia politicians of both parties have been pushing the federal government to dole out $440 million over several years to help deepen the Savannah River from 42 to 47 feet to make way for larger container ships coming from the soon-to-be-complete Panama Canal expansion.

The state is borrowing the rest of the money needed for the project.

The U.S. Senate's spending bill for the Army Corps of Engineers, released Thursday, proposed $42.7 million for the project next year, the same amount the Obama administration requested in February. With a federal earmark ban in place, lawmakers are unable to do much to change that amount.

But project backers said Friday they were encouraged by the increase senators also proposed for a more general construction account at the Army Corps.

Two aides to the Senate Appropriations Committee said that under the current blueprint, the harbor deepening would also be able to compete for a slice of $227 million set aside for navigation projects. The final decision about how much extra money it would ultimately receive would come from the Army Corps, congressional aides said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said the way that portion of the bill is written is “tailor made for Georgia.”

“Let just simply say that the language in this bill … gives us the ability and gives the Corps the ability to fully fund SHEP on the federal level for this year and for ongoing years,” he said in an interview Friday.

The measure is a preliminary victory for Georgia's congressional delegation, which pushed the House and Senate Appropriations panels for at least $80 million for the project this year.

Georgia Ports Authority officials also said they was encouraged by the Senate bill, which will be considered on the floor of the chamber next week, as well as by initial news from a similar House version.

“This is the first step in the process, and it’s a critical step because if you don’t see it now, then you’re really playing a long game of catch-up,” said Jamie McCurry, senior director of administration and government affairs at the Ports Authority. “So we feel very good about what we’ve seen this week in both the House and the Senate,”

Indeed, there is still a long road ahead for the Army Corps spending bill, and it is likely Congress will pump the brakes on any final decision until after the November elections.

Army Corps officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The port's impact on Georgia's economy has been measured at $39 billion a year. It is among the busiest ports in the country. Funding the harbor deepening has united Georgia lawmakers since Congress first authorized the expansion work in 1999.