Six Georgia Ports Authority neo-panamax ship-to-shore cranes work the container ship Cosco Development at the Port of Savannah, Friday, May 12, 2017, in Garden City, Ga. The ship is the largest vessel ever to call on the U.S. East Coast. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)
Photo: Steve Bisson
Photo: Steve Bisson

Savannah port boosters decry feds’ move to withhold additional funds

Georgia’s public officials were caught off guard Thursday after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the project to deepen Savannah’s harbor, decided against giving the effort any extra money.

Boosters of the state’s top development project were counting on the federal agency to send tens of millions of additional dollars to the venture — beyond the $42.7 million specifically set aside for Savannah in the latest government spending bill — in order to keep construction work on schedule. They said they needed a total of roughly $100 million to do so.

So there was plenty of dismay to go around after the Corps announced that there would be no more money coming for the port this year.

While Georgia lawmakers on Wednesday cheered the Trump administration’s separate proposal to boost funding for the port next year by 17 percent to $50 million — a high-water mark from Washington — there’s now concern that it’ll actually be harder to keep the project on track because of stinginess from the corps this budget year.

“This news is unfathomable,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, whose 1st congressional district includes the port. “The administration has stressed the importance of infrastructure projects, yet fails to support the deep draft navigation project with the highest benefit to cost ratio of 7.3 to 1.”

“All I can think is that it must be some kind of mistake,” Carter added.

Congress’ 6-year-old ban on earmarks has shifted the power to decide which individual infrastructure projects, from bridge construction to dredging work at ports like Savannah, from Capitol Hill to the executive branch. It’s now up to bureaucrats at agencies like the Army Corps to decide which projects are most deserving of federal money.

That leaves members of Congress with limited leverage when it comes to advocating for projects in their districts. The fear now is that once a precedent is set, it will become much harder to convince the feds to greenlight much more funding to the same project later on, such as the $973 million Savannah effort.

“At this funding rate, the project will double the time it takes to complete and cost an additional $200 million,” Carter said.

The port and the Army Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Work to deepen the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet to make way for larger cargo ships from the expanded Panama Canal has already fallen behind. Corps officials announced last month that the project would take two years longer and 38 percent more to complete due to construction cost increases and contract bidding. Construction work is now scheduled to wrap up in January 2022.

When word came down that no additional funds would be added this year, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office sent out a statement expressing its disappointment.

“Unfortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers chose not to prioritize this project in its discretionary funds,” the statement said. “It is our hope that the Corps will decide to devote future funding to (the Savannah project) so that it will continue on its current timeline.”

A couple of hours later, Deal’s office sent over a second statement affirming the state’s partnership with the corps.

“Georgia is fortunate to have the Corps’ commitment on this project,” the second statement said.

Earlier this month, Deal told reporters he was committed to finding resources to help finish the project, but he also said he expected the federal government to fulfill its promise to fund 75 percent of the total cost.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he was “disappointed” in the Corps’ decision. Both he and Carter vowed to fight on in Congress to secure more federal funding.

Congress cannot alter the Corps’ plans for 2017 spending, but lawmakers have yet to decide how to allocate resources for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1.

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