Government says port project can’t move forward

by W. Winston Skinner

Hours after Gov. Nathan Deal announced the state would start the dredging of the port of Savannah, the White House announced that will not be allowed.

Georgia officials expressed shock and dismay when Pres. Barack Obama’s proposed budget was released this week — with no funding for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. Both Obama and Vice Pres. Joe Biden have talked about the vital importance of the expansion in the past two years.

SHEP proponents were counting on $400 million-plus in federal dollars in the proposed budget to be combined with $231 in state funds to deepen the port — making it possible for the port to serve larger tankers coming through an enlarged Panama Canal.

Candace Boothby, president of the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce, talked Thursday about the lack of funding for the project. “The overall thought is the Chamber is very disappointed over the absence of funding through the president’s budget but hopes and believes that this will be corrected in time,” she said.

The Associated Press and the Savannah Morning News reported on the White House response to Deal’s vow to start work on the dredging. Deal had announced Tuesday the state would begin work — using the $231 million set aside.

“Tuesday evening, the White House said it can’t let the harbor expansion move ahead, no matter who’s footing the bill, until Congress passes a multi-billion-dollar water bill that’s been stuck in committee since October,” Mary Carr Mayle wrote in the Morning News.

The Water Resources Development Act contains language that would increase the cost of the Savannah project, which has grown by $193 million since it was initially approved by Congress 15 years ago. The White House stated Congress needs to raise the spending limit before construction can begin.

“Because Congress hasn’t reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act in more than seven years, many projects like the project in Savannah haven’t been able to move forward,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday evening. “This is not a budget problem, this is an authorization problem.”

Georgia officials disagree. Deal had indicated Wednesday he would authorize the start of work — citing a federal spending bill.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston referenced that same bill. “Just six weeks ago, Pres. Obama himself signed legislation that cleared any remaining hurdles for the project to move forward. There is no doubting the law or legislative intent of Congress on this project: it is time for construction — and for the federal government to meet its obligations,” Kingston said.

SHEP will increase the depth of the Savannah River channel from 42 feet to 47 feet. The plan would make it possible to accommodate larger container ships coming through an expanded Panama Canal in 2016.

“We’ve really been playing catch-up for the last five years for one reason or the other,” Georgia Ports executive director Curtis Foltz told the Morning News on Wednesday. “We simply can’t afford to wait any longer, so our intention is to move forward with those things we can do.”

Foltz said he spoke with Deal Wednesday morning, and “the governor is committed to doing everything allowed by law now” as they wait for the water bill to pass.

“There is plenty that we can do — and have already begun doing,” Foltz said. “We have design work to finish, we’ve begun initial testing for the CSS Georgia removal and we will continue to expedite property acquisition. We’re looking to see if there are other elements we can move ahead on.”

Kingston told the Morning News that the president’s Office of Management and Budget has continually presented roadblocks to starting SHEP. “OMB is doing the president’s bidding and it’s becoming clear the president does not want this project to happen,” he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have oversight of the project, has not clarified its position on SHEP and whether work can proceed. Since the project is essentially a federal one, SHEP seems unlikely to move forward immediately.

“We’re talking about spending state money to help this nation recover,” Foltz told the Morning News. “I think there is genuine amazement, disappointment and shock across all of the elected officials.”

Coweta County businesses sell items made overseas that come ashore in Savannah. The port also functions by bringing raw materials that are used by local industries and by shipping finished products made in Coweta all over the world.

“Because the cost of shipping over land is significantly more than by ship, it is likely that a lot of material/finished goods from Japan, China and the rest of Asia — including Australia — destined for the eastern and Atlantic coast, will go through the Panama Canal,” Boothby said.

Since the Panama Canal’s expansion is “to accommodate larger ocean-going shipping vessels,” those larger ships “would then go into east coast ports like Savannah, Brunswick and Charleston to support industries, including some in Coweta County, Boothby surmised. “This is supposition but has a strong likelihood of truth.”

Many business and industry leaders fear ports that are not deep enough to service the super-sized tankers will be bypassed in favor of ports that can accommodate them. A report last year indicated Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore, Md., were the only two ports on the eastern seaboard already deep enough to serve the larger ships.

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