Port project included in federal budget bill
by W. Winston Skinner
Funding for expansion of the Savannah port is in the budget bill approved by the U.S. Senate.
State officials have been pushing for expansion of the port in Savannah so it can serve larger vessels when the Panama Canal expansion project is completed. The Savannah port has a major impact on local businesses — bringing in raw materials and products for local companies and shipping out finished goods made in Coweta to points all over the globe.
Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson noted large projects — like the $461 million for the Savannah project — are pulling politicians with diverse views together. “Big multimillion-dollar water projects, once a favorite target of good-government reformers who made them a poster child of political pork, are back in vogue as a rare force of concord in a dysfunctional Congress,” he wrote.
“Republicans and Democrats who found little common ground in 2013 are rallying around a bill they hope to pass early next year authorizing up to $12.5 billion over the next decade,” Jackson wrote.
In addition to the ports expansion, the Senate appropriations bills also has major funding for flood diversion in North Dakota and widening a Texas-Louisiana waterway.
The House version of the bill calls for less spending — about $8.2 billion. Negotiators are confident they can merge the two and pass the package for Pres. Barack Obama's signature early in 2014, according to AP.
Negotiators held their first formal meeting just before Thanksgiving on blending the two versions. Staff talks continued until Congress left for its year-end break and will resume in January.
The large projects are appealing to a wide range of the political spectrum because of their potential to create jobs. Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied members to support the bills, saying they will help keep American businesses competitive.
The House bill passed 417-3 in late October, winning support of everyone from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to tea party stalwarts like Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. The Senate easily passed its version of the bill in May by a vote of 83-14.
Both bills accelerate environmental reviews and allow more money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be spent on harbor improvements, but the House version of the bill ramps up spending from the fund more slowly.
Jackson wrote the legislation “would affect virtually every facet of America's waterways and authorizes or reauthorizes dozens of projects, though Congress still has to pass separate bills appropriating money for them.”
Candace Boothby, president of the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce, has spoken several times during the past year about the importance of the port expansion.
“Our businesses are now in competition with the world markets and not just the domestic one. Our large international corporate base continues to grow, and more efficient and cost-effective ways of getting product to market are essential,” Boothby said.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta resident, said the ports “are extremely important to our state’s economy” and “provide a much needed link to our overseas trading partners.”
The Panama Canal is being deepened, and much larger ships will be coming through the locks of the canal when that project is finished. Some U.S. ports — including Savannah currently — are not deep enough to serve those new ships.
All exports from eastern Asia ship through the Panama Canal to reach the eastern seaboard. “If U.S. ports don’t deepen and widen their facilities, they simply will be bypassed to a port that can accommodate these shipments,” Boothby said.
According to a May 6 report on National Public Radio, Baltimore, Md. and Norfolk, Va. are currently the only ports on the eastern seaboard that are deep enough to accommodate the larger ships slated to come through the Panama Canal.