Float Georgia’s boats

“We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water,” Vice President Joe Biden at the Port of Savannah Sept. 16.

We don’t need more hell in this religious-minded state, but we could certainly use more high water in one place — the 30-something miles of the Savannah River between its namesake port and the Atlantic Ocean.

To be precise, Georgia and its capital city need that river to be five feet higher — or deeper, actually. That would put the Savannah’s channel at 47 feet — the depth needed to allow bigger ships to make their way to its busy port.

The $662 million project to make that happen needs to get underway soonest — because the larger ships are on the horizon, thanks to a deepening of the Panama Canal.

All of which means that Biden’s nice words about the Port of Savannah during a visit last week are encouraging. But talk without action by his fellow Washington pols won’t get this needed job underway. And we’ve waited patiently for too long.

As Biden rightly pointed out, lagging investment in critical U.S. infrastructure erodes key pillars of our economy — in this instance Savannah’s port. To stem that erosion and its corrosive effect on Georgia’s and the national economy, the U.S. House needs to quickly pass legislation that would allow the Savannah deepening to finally begin. That may be the easy part.

Washington also needs to step up in paying for its roughly $400 million share of the expansion. The Obama administration has shown great, if not blind, faith in the belief that federal money can yield transformative results for the nation’s economy. It’s hard to find a better example of where such investment actually makes sense than improving our major East Coast port that is a large engine of the Southeast’s economy. Biden and his boss seem to agree on that point.

So, bring it on. As in the federal portion of the cost.

Georgia is prepared to float its share of the deepening work. State officials say they’re ready to start spending some of the more than $200 million allocated for the effort. Yet, Congressional action is needed to greenlight even the use of state money on the project.

Curtis Foltz, head of the Georgia Ports Authority, has said state lawmakers will consider adding in another $30 million next year, bringing the state’s part of the proposed tab to more than $260 million.

If the feds don’t act soon, Gov. Nathan Deal and others have suggested they’ll seek permission to let the state begin the work using its own money. That shouldn’t have to be the case. Washington should act quickly and do its part.

We wish too that Deal had shown up at the port last Monday to sell our cause to Biden in person. His presence, along with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, would have continued the duo’s powerful joint message that economics and prosperity trump partisan politics.

Funding aside, Savannah has made headway in other ways. After long study, the Army Corps of Engineers gave its nod to the dredging last year. Georgia first asked the federal government in 1993 to study the deepening of the river and harbor.

And environmental concerns about the dredging project were addressed earlier this year with settlement of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists and South Carolina officials. To help resolve the suit, Georgia agreed to pay $33.5 million and turn over 2,000 acres on the South Carolina side of the river. That acreage will be used for a wetlands-wildlife refuge.

Environmental concerns have their place in a project so large that it will scour five feet of new depth and alter the blend of freshwater and saltwater in the Savannah River. To that end, at this point, more than half of the $662 million project’s cost will be spent for environmental work. That’s real money in anybody’s ledger. And it would be well-spent to minimize ecological damage from this important project.

The deepening project is vital for Georgia’s well-being, given that Savannah and the port at Brunswick drive an estimated $39 billion into the state economy, according to a University of Georgia study. Atlanta also benefits greatly, with about 100,000 jobs in the metro area relying on goods moving into and out of the ports.

In Savannah last week, Biden, ever the showman, preached pertinent questions. “What are we doing? We’re arguing about whether or not to deepen this port? It’s time we get moving,” he said.

So true, Mr. Vice President. We’d urge you to make the same speech around D.C. and help get this needed work underway.

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