Government funding agreement sets aside more money for Savannah port

(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

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(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

A bipartisan spending deal Congress is expected to pass in the days ahead would set aside millions for deepening work at the Savannah harbor while leaving the door open for more federal money for one of Georgia’s top economic development projects.

A group of House and Senate negotiators unveiled a $147.5 billion spending bill on Monday evening that sets aside $49 million in new federal money for the dredging project.

Work to deepen the harbor from 42 to 47 feet hit its midpoint earlier this year, with full completion expected in late 2021. The nearly $1 billion venture will allow the port to accommodate larger cargo ships from the recently-expanded Panama Canal, which boosters say would be a major economic boon to the region.

The state has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the project, but the nearly $680 million in previously-promised federal funds have been slower to come. A breakthrough came in June, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was setting aside a record $85 million for the project in its 2018 work plan.

Project advocates say that roughly $100 million a year will be needed to keep dredging work on track.

Congress' compromise fiscal 2019 spending bill gets the project halfway there, matching the funding level recommended by the Trump administration in February. The rest will be up to the Corps, which will have 60 days after the legislation is signed to decide whether to give the project any additional money.

“Clearly [the port expansion] , with the highest [return on investment] of any project of its type, should be strongly considered for further investment to ensure timely completion,” said Jamie McCurry, chief administrative officer for the Georgia Ports Authority.

The new bill sets aside an extra $509 million for the corps to divvy up among projects such as Savannah's. But members of Congress are unable to tell the agency where specifically to put the money because of a ban on earmarks, or specific projects requested by lawmakers.

Still, local lawmakers said they were optimistic about securing the extra money from the administration.

“I will continue fighting for additional federal support and working to ensure President Trump, the administration and the Corps again realize the critical importance of this project,” said Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, whose U.S. House district includes the port.

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