Congress set to move on water bill allowing Savannah Port dredging


The Port of Savannah has a significant impact on jobs and the economy throughout the state of Georgia, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported thoroughly on the state’s efforts to deepen the harbor to handle larger ships that will soon begin passing through the Panama Canal. Next week, Congress is set to vote on a water resources bill that will – at long last – allow the deepening to begin. Here are previous stories on that can provide deep background on the issue:

The final legislative blockade to the start of the Savannah Port deepening is set to fall next week, as congressional leaders from both parties and chambers have signed off on a deal for a multibillion-dollar water resources bill.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act will allow the port project to begin with money the state already has set aside, with a cost estimate that continues to rise. Georgia business and political leaders were stunned earlier this year when the Obama administration declined to put big money behind the project. But administration officials said Congress had to act first on the water bill to authorize the project at a higher price tag.

The conference report puts the project’s total cost at $706 million, well above the earlier 2012 estimate of $652 million by top Army Corps of Engineers officials in Washington. (Georgia later agreed to pay an additional $33 million to mitigate environmental damage raised by South Carolina officials.)

Jamie McCurry, senior director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said Thursday afternoon that the new price tag takes into account higher costs for fuel to run the dredge boats, updated design elements and inflation.

Washington is on the hook for $492 million of the total cost. Georgia taxpayers must pay $214 million, according to House-Senate conferees. Yet Georgia legislators have already set aside $266 million. The additional Georgia money will be needed, McCurry said, to cover other land, easement and right-of-way costs for deepening the river.

There is no guarantee Congress will deliver its share in future years. McCurry isn’t worried.

“We’re pleased with the language in this important bill, and it will be sufficient to move (the deepening) forward into the construction phase post-haste,” he said from Savannah. “We expect the federal funding to be coming in significant amounts in the fiscal year 2016 budget.”

After nearly seven months of behind-the-scenes wrangling to consolidate House- and Senate-passed water bills, key negotiators signed a conference report Thursday. Votes are expected in the House on Tuesday and the Senate later in the week. After that, the bill goes to President Barack Obama, who has said he will sign it.

The bill will authorize 34 projects in virtually every region of the country. Lawmakers say it provides important investment in the nation’s water infrastructure.

The Senate’s version would authorize about $12.5 billion over the next decade, while the House’s version would cost about $8.2 billion. The compromise is expected to land somewhere in between the two, but a Congressional Budget Office estimate was not yet available.

Congress would have to pass separate legislation to pay for all the projects included in the bill.

Both versions of the bill easily passed last year. With the estimated cost of the bill expected to rise, though, there is some concern that more conservative Republicans might vote against it. Outside groups, including Heritage Action, have said the bill does not do enough to rein in spending.

But businesses groups — and many lawmakers — have called both versions of the bill a potential jobs engine, citing the investment in infrastructure. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also lobbied lawmakers in both houses to pass the bill, saying it will ensure that American businesses stay competitive.

One effort to try to keep conservative lawmakers on board is preserved in the compromise. Addressing past concerns that water projects bills were loaded with favors for lawmakers’ districts and states, the compromise legislation eliminates roughly $18 billion in dormant projects that were authorized before 2007.

The bill also sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects, eliminates duplicative reviews and includes language that speeds up the environmental review process for projects.

Savannah is the nation’s fourth-busiest container port and second-busiest on the East Coast, providing a huge economic engine for Georgia. The Savannah and Brunswick seaports constitute an estimated $39 billion a year for the state’s economy, according to a University of Georgia report. About 100,000 jobs across metro Atlanta rely on goods flowing in and out of the ports.

The corps expects a deepened river to result in an annual net benefit of $174 million by enabling shipping companies to reach the port more easily.

The project’s opponents include environmentalists and South Carolina officials — partial to a rival port in Charleston — who question the economic benefits and environmental safeguards proposed by the corps. Additional legal challenges from South Carolina to stymie the deepening are possible.

Georgia members of Congress said the earlier snub in Obama’s budget was a surprise. This time, Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia sought ironclad public clarity from the administration.

Isakson met with key officials from the corps and the Office of Management and Budget to nail down the immediate steps for the port after WRRDA passes. OMB Director Sylvia Burwell has been nominated to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Isakson used her confirmation hearing Wednesday to ask about the Savannah project.

Isakson asked whether, once the bill is passed, the corps will immediately move to sign a final agreement with the Georgia Ports Authority and work can begin with state money that will be counted toward the state’s portion of the project.

“Do I have a correct representation of the steps forward to complete this project?” Isakson asked.

“Senator, you do,” Burwell replied.

If the House vote goes ahead as expected on Tuesday, it presents a scheduling problem for Georgia’s congressmen who have a primary election that day — particularly the three Republican House members running for the U.S. Senate. A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, an Athens Republican, said the congressman “would like to be here” for the vote.

For U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican also running for the Senate, the issue hits closer to home.

“I don’t anticipate Jack Kingston missing a vote to clear Georgia’s No. 1 economic development initiative for which he leads and has led the fight for the past 15 years,” spokesman Chris Crawford said.