The new $1.1 trillion federal spending plan signed into law contains just a small amount of funding for deepening the busy shipping channel to the Port of Savannah to make room for supersized cargo ships. However, legal language Georgia lawmakers inserted into the measure may prove more valuable than money in terms of getting the $652 million project underway this year.
The Army Corps of Engineers says it's optimistic the new law signed barely a week ago eliminates a final bureaucratic roadblock that's kept the proposed harbor expansion at a virtual standstill for 15 months. The Corps' Savannah District, which is overseeing the project, is awaiting a final interpretation from its Washington headquarters.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, has no such reservations. He said two provisions he helped include in the larger spending bill make it "abundantly clear" that dredging the Savannah River can begin as soon as the Corps is ready.
"It's so clear that even the government can understand it," said Kingston, who ultimately voted against the omnibus spending bill, saying it cost too much. So did two other Georgia congressmen who, like Kingston, are seeking the GOP nomination for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat this year.
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling to deepen the waterway connecting its berths to the Atlantic Ocean in order to accommodate giant cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal in 2015. The federal government gave final approval to deepening the Savannah River shipping channel from 42 feet to 47 feet in October 2012. Georgia has already set aside $231 million in state tax dollars for its share, with Gov. Nathan Deal seeking another $35 million this year.
Getting enough federal funding to start construction has proven tough and the $1.2 million in the latest spending bill falls far short. Since last summer, Deal has said he's ready to spend almost entirely state money upfront as long as Washington pays its 60-percent share later. All the Corps needs to do is sign a cost-sharing agreement with Georgia state officials. But the Corps has insisted one final obstacle stands in its way.
When Congress first authorized studying the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999, it set the cost of the project at $459 million. Since then, the price tag has risen by $193 million. The Corps says lawmakers must raise the authorized spending limit by that amount before the dredging project can move forward. Both the House and Senate approved the higher cost last year as part of sweeping water projects bills, but more than $4 billion worth of differences between the two versions have yet to be resolved between the chambers.
Kingston and Georgia's two senators, Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, succeeded at getting language in the 1,582-page omnibus bill that allows the Army Corps to ignore such spending caps for two years when it comes to projects funded by the massive measure. The Savannah harbor expansion is one of them.
"The Corps headquarters is still reviewing the language," said Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the agency's Savannah District. "We here in the district are ready to execute this project as soon as we get clearance to proceed. We're optimistic this appropriations bill will allow us to move to the next step."
The spending bill also contains a second provision that Georgia lawmakers and port officials hope will spur the Obama administration and Congress to start funding substantial installments of the federal government's $391 million share of the harbor deepening. It essentially reclassifies the Savannah project from one considered to still be under study to one that's already under construction.
That should bypass problems the Army Corps had in recent years getting money to start new construction projects.
Birdwell couldn't say how long the Corps might take to tell its Savannah office whether the changes have truly broken the legal logjam that's been holding up the harbor expansion. If Savannah gets a green light to proceed, Birdwell said, it should take "weeks, not months" to get the project moving again.
"We're ready to jump," Birdwell said.
So are the governor and the Georgia Ports Authority.
"It's time to start moving dirt," Deal proclaimed in his State of the State speech to Georgia lawmakers this month. The governor has long touted the Savannah harbor expansion as Georgia's top economic development project.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, is itching to get started as well.
Even if work begins this year to dredge more than 30 miles of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean, construction won't wrap up until late 2017 at the soonest. That's long after the Panama Canal expansion should be done by mid-2015. Foltz has insisted the Savannah port's customers need to see work on the harbor expansion well underway by then.
"We and our state and congressional leadership know that every day counts," Foltz said.