Savannah Port and surrounding area Monday February 13, 2012. Gov. Nathan Deal said the state is exploring options to float the full cost of the $685 million port expansion project, with the federal government later reimbursing about $400 million, and ports officials said they expect the deepening to begin this year. Brant Sanderlin bsanderlin@ajc.com
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

Georgia seeks way to keep port project on track

Georgia leaders readied plans to move forward with the deepening of Savannah’s harbor on Wednesday as they sought to determine why the Obama administration surprised - Republicans say betrayed - Georgia by not proposing funding for the dredging of the port this year and declaring the project not yet ready to go.

Gov. Nathan Deal said the state is exploring options to float the full cost of the $685 million project, with the federal government later reimbursing about $400 million, and ports officials said they expect the deepening to begin this year.

Blame for the budget omission ranged from Congress to the budget bureaucracy to politics, depending on who was doing the blaming.

The finger-pointing that followed the news on Tuesday evolved into saber-rattling on Wednesday. Democrats, forced on the defensive, pressured the White House to change its position or deflected blame to Deal’s administration. Republicans appeared willing to risk a legal battle to move forward with the dredging.

“We cannot afford to lose time. We’re not playing politics with this issue, and I would certainly hope that the administration is not doing that either,” said Deal. “They have made promises, they’ve acknowledged the importance of this project. We have jumped through every hurdle they have placed in our way. It’s time to start doing something.

Backers of the port deepening say it will enable Savannah to compete for larger ships expected to use an expanded Panama Canal. The port is considered a key cog in metro Atlanta’s economy because goods it handles flow through the area’s distribution centers.

The White House maintained that it cannot send money to the project until Congress approves a water resources bill that has been languishing in a House-Senate conference committee for months. Key Congressional negotiators would not give a timeline Wednesday, nor would they explain the holdup for a bill authorizing water projects across the country.

Members of Georgia’s Congressional delegation thought they had solved the authorization problem by making sure a January spending bill designated the Savannah expansion an “ongoing construction project.” The White House Office of Management and Budget indicated that language was the key to securing final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and opening the budgetary floodgates.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss recalled a Feb. 21 conversation with Vice President Joe Biden and fellow Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

“Guys, this is going to get funded by the end of the month,” Biden said, in Chambliss’ retelling.

The first hints of trouble from OMB came a few weeks ago, prompting a flurry of calls from the delegation to administration honchos such as White House budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. Isakson said Burwell worried that making a special case for Savannah would set a bad precedent for other projects that are also begging for funding.

Still, many in Georgia saw political motives, and not simply a sluggish bureaucracy, at play.

Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, as he qualified to challenge the governor in this year’s election, said the Deal administration’s “stick in the eye” approach to the White House may have come home to roost.

“We have seen consistently over the last three years the governor putting Washington politics first and solving problems in Georgia second,” said Carter. “And that clearly contributed to what happened. Absolutely.”

Michelle Nunn, the Democratic front-runner for an open U.S. Senate seat, said she pressed Biden during an awkwardly timed visit to Atlanta on Tuesday to live up to his “come hell or high water” promise last fall that the port would be deepened.

Deal’s office believes January’s federal spending bill gave the state a two-year window to start preparing for the dredging, a process that could take years to complete. The governor said he doesn’t think the state will have to go to court to clear the way, but added, “We can’t afford to wait any longer.”

“It flies in the face of everything the president has said, and particularly what the vice president has said,” Deal said. “I do not know their reason for not allowing us to move forward … but I do know we have a two-year window with which to do the project.”

The state is considering options to pay for the entire project in case federal dollars don’t come through. Georgia already has set aside $231 million and plans to add another $35 million this year. The governor said the state could float bonds or enter into a public-private partnership to fund the rest, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“We don’t necessarily want to go down that path, but we’re taking a look at everything,” said Bart Gobeil, the state’s chief operating officer.

State planners have carved out some elements of the project that don’t require the passage of the water bill. That includes purchasing controversial oxygen injection system, securing upstream wetlands and a renewed push to dig up a sunken warship along the waterway.

“I think that could happen by the end of the year,” Gobeil said of efforts to begin preparing for the dredging. “And it wouldn’t necessarily take legal action.”

Curtis Foltz, the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said his agency and the Deal administration are looking into more ways to get moving without the Corps. When Congress finally passes the water bill, the Corps can come to a final project agreement with GPA and solicit bids for projects such as dredging the outer 10 miles of river.

If the water bill becomes law soon, Congress could add money for Savannah this year through the appropriations process, as the president’s budget is only a request. But that effort is complicated by a recent ban on earmarks.

Joel Wooten, a member of the Georgia Ports Authority, said he believes the budget delay is only a speed bump, voicing the views of those who see the snub as a fleeting setback.

“The federal government is going to come up with their share of the money,” said Wooten. “There’s going to be a slight delay, but I feel like Congress is going to get their negotiations done and get that passed so we can move forward. It’s just temporary. Well, I hope it’s just temporary.”

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