Latest White House budget a boon for the Savannah port

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., flanked by Rep. Buddy Carter R-Ga., left, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., right, leads a meeting with the Georgia Ports Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers about the budget for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project on Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)



Georgia’s top economic development project would receive a record level of funding under the White House’s newest budget blueprint.

The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed setting aside $130.3 million for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That’s just shy of the amount boosters have been pushing for in recent meetings with the administration.

“Funding at this level, which represents full capability for the coming year, ensures that the project remains on schedule and that the United States will soon benefit from the substantial return on investment that the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project represents,” said Jimmy Allgood, the board chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority.

Presidential budgets are usually dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, but the 8-year-old earmark ban essentially gives the administration final say over projects funded by the Army Corps of Engineers, such as the dredging of Savannah's port.

The nearly $1 billion project to deepen the Savannah harbor bed from 42 feet to 47 feet is now more than halfway complete. Proponents say it will deliver $282 million in annual transportation savings to the country once it’s finished in 2022.

Even with near-universal support from state officials, who have allotted more than $300 million in spending for the project, it took years for Georgia lawmakers to secure steady funding commitments from Washington.

The state’s congressional delegation stepped up its lobbying efforts during the final years of the Obama administration and again as President Donald Trump started his tenure with an infrastructure funding push.

The entire delegation wrote to White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney in November hyping the project's benefits, and several Republicans extended an invite to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to visit the site last year.

“We have fought tirelessly for this federal support, and we will continue this work until it becomes a reality,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, who represents Savannah.

Over the past two years, the Army Corps of Engineers has set aside a combined $186 million for the project, which seeks to make way for bigger ships coming from the recently expanded Panama Canal.

The project managed to escape the deep cuts that the Trump administration has proposed for the corps, which builds and manages the country’s locks and dams. The White House envisioned cutting the agency’s funding by nearly one-third and focusing on projects where construction is currently underway.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson attributed the good Savannah news to a “deal” he cut with Mulvaney last year.

That’s when the White House was seeking Senate confirmation for Mulvaney deputy Russell Vought, a conservative firebrand whose nomination was nearly sidelined because of past comments he made about Muslims. Isakson and fellow Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue ultimately backed Vought, who was confirmed after Pence cast the tie-breaking vote.

“We found mutual ways to help each other,” Isakson said of Mulvaney.

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