Port project squanders millions

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast.

In the interest of taxpayers and full disclosure, some important considerations need to be brought to light regarding the recent approval of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Contrary to Rep. Jack Kingston’s praise for cutting “bureaucratic red tape” and expediting projects, the bill will result in billions in tax dollars squandered on projectsof dubious benefit.. Moreover, by eliminating important environmental evaluation requirements and spending controls, still more waste at taxpayers’ expense will occur.

WRRDA is not a “huge win,” as Kingston claims, but a fiasco in the fight against pork-barrel spending. This bill is a major setback.

The Savannah harbor deepening project is a prime example of the legislation’s failure to honestly support taxpayer interests. Although the project is estimated to cost $652 million, about half of that is to pay for attempts to limit, or compensate for, harm to water quality, fisheries, wetlands and other resources of great economic value. For this reason alone, it’s prudent to doubt the project is well justified.

The history of Army Corps of Engineers performance does not bode well for the reliability of such mitigation, its real costs to the public or its proper assessment after implementation. WRRDA does nothing to improve these deficiencies.

It doesn’t provide the follow-through needed to ensure that when mitigation efforts don’t work, project damage will be reliably controlled. Regulatory exemptions created by the act will further weaken controls by eliminating vital review sanctions, causing still more wasted tax dollars, since damage repair after the fact will be expensive, if not impossible.

When damage recovery is impossible, economic hardships will be shifted onto tourism, fisheries, coastal communities and property owners, with losses potentially reaching millions of dollars annually.

Significantly, despite lengthy study of the Savannah project, there has never been any evaluation of the actual need for deep-water ports in the Southeast. Based on careful observation of existing ports in the rest of the world, including the U.S. West Coast, only a few deep ports will even be required.

As a candidate for deepening, Savannah’s port, being 38 miles upriver, does not compare well with other ports in the Southeast, including some that are already deeper than Savannah’s will be after spending at least $652 million. It is notable these other ports are also much more accessible to ocean shipping channels, without risky navigational problems.

Many experts agree that U.S. competitiveness in a global market does not depend on deepening every port along the East Coast. For both U.S. competitive interests as well as taxpayer safeguards, it is best to deepen only a few ports strategically located and naturally well-suited. Savannah’s port is not one of them. Whether federal funds or state money is used for this project, taxpayers are the unwitting dupes paying the check. The House version of WRRDA is the brazen accomplice.