Savannah ports bill awaits Obama

by W. Winston Skinner

Funding for the expansion of the Port of Savannah is just a few strokes of the pen from reality.

Congress sent the White House a $12.3 billion water projects bill Thursday. With a 91-7 vote, the Senate passed the bill authorizing 34 new projects over the next 10 years. The House passed it Tuesday after key lawmakers spent six months blending separate House and Senate versions approved last year.

Dredging and harbor expansions in Boston and Savannah are among the projects in the bill. The Savannah port potentially has a major economic impact on Coweta County and throughout the Southeastern United States. Government and business leaders have said deepening the Savannah port is necessary to keep it competitive.

U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., released a joint statement Thursday after passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. "With the passage of WRRDA, Congress has confirmed what we in Georgia already knew – the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is crucial for our region and the nation as a whole. This economic engine will support hundreds of thousands of jobs each year while generating billions in revenue for the entire Southeast. It is because of this fact the project has had overwhelming, bipartisan support from local, state and federal officials. For a decade and a half, we have completed every task set before us to get this project done. We have now cleared the last congressional hurdle, paving the way for the administration to give a green light to the state of Georgia to begin construction on what will be the largest port on the east coast for the Post-Panamax ships.”

The Post-Panamax reference is to a major expansion at the Panama Canal that will allow larger ships to pass through the locks there. Experts believe the move will be toward larger ships, meaning harbors that can’t accommodate them will lose economically.

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.

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project was authorized in the bill approved Thursday, according to Chambliss spokeswoman Amanda Maddox. The funds allocated to SHEP will deepen the Savannah River from its current 42-foot depth to as much as 47 feet.

“The project is being undertaken in anticipation of an expansion of the Panama Canal that will increase the maximum draft of vessels traveling to and from the East Coast from 39.5 feet to as much as 50 feet,” Maddox said. “According to the Army Corps of Engineers, it will bring more than $115 million in annual economic benefit to the United States, primarily through reducing costs associated with transportation.”

The ports project has drawn support from Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, along with numerous other Georgia politicians. Georgia officials expressed dismay earlier this year when funds for SHEP were not included in Pres. Barack Obama’s proposed budget.

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.

Earlier this year, Candace Boothby, president of the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce, said a deeper port should “accommodate larger ocean-going shipping vessels” supporting “industries, including some in Coweta County.” She added, “This is supposition but has a strong likelihood of truth.”

Some conservative and watchdog groups complained the bill was still bloated with unnecessary spending. But it had widespread support from state and local officials and business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as legislation that will produce jobs and enhance commerce.

"This is a strong, bipartisan bill," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., told AP. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., hailed the bill's passage as a "good day" for a host of interests. Beside authorizing projects, the bill makes changes to how future projects can seek funding and sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects. It eliminates some Army Corps of Engineers reviews and speeds up environmental reviews for potential projects.

The bill also increases spending from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to pay for improvements to ports, and creates a five-year pilot program to provide loans and loan guarantees for various projects.



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