Georgia to pursue harbor project without U.S. funds

The Post-Panamax MSC Bruxelles steams into Charleston Harbor. Larger containership can call on the South Carolina port by timing tides. (Photo by S.C. State Ports Authority)

The Post-Panamax MSC Bruxelles steams into Charleston Harbor. Larger containership can call on the South Carolina port by timing tides. (Photo by S.C. State Ports Authority)

Staff Report
Published March 13, 2014

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is vowing to press on with deepening Savannah Harbor even if President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for 2015 doesn’t include construction funds for the project.

Deal and other Georgia officials were surprised to learn last week that Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts Oct. 1, left the $652 million deepening project at the Port of Savannah off its funding wish list.

“Vice President Biden promised in the past year that we’d get this project done come ‘hell or high water,’ but it’s more accurate to say the administration is going to put us through the former to get to the latter,” Deal said.

While Deal was fuming, officials in South Carolina and Florida were grateful seaports in their states had made the funding cut and appeared on track to pursue deepening projects that would allow their ports to handle the supersized ships expected to sail through the Panama Canal by the end of 2015.

“We’re deeply appreciative that the administration recognizes our harbor deepening as a critical infrastructure project,” said Bill Stern, chairman of the S.C. State Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston. “The support from President Obama and Vice President Biden – along with members of Congress, the South Carolina delegation, South Carolina Legislature, Gov. (Nikki) Haley and (Charleston) Mayor (Joe) Riley — cannot be overstated in its impact on the SCPA’s future competitiveness and our role in the region and nation’s prosperity.”

Down the coast at the Port of Jacksonville, Fla., U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw led local officials in celebrating the budget news.

“Jaxport and the northeast Florida regional economy got a boost today,” the Republican congressman said. “Deepening the St. Johns River means more jobs, more trade, and more economic growth for the region. If we do not act quickly, Jaxport will fall behind competitors on the East Coast, and the economic engine that has driven this community for the past decade will be put in danger.”

If Georgia doesn’t get money from the federal government, Deal said the state would use $266 million it has set aside to get the work started.

“That’s exactly what I intend to do,” Deal said. “The state of Georgia and its congressional delegation have worked diligently and patiently to see this project through to fruition. We’ve dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘T.’ We’ve received every federal permit required, and we’ve already waited too long.”

Under a federal law that was recently passed by Congress and signed by Obama, Georgia will use state funds for dredging “until the federal government lives up to its obligations in this partnership,” Deal said. “The Obama administration has noted repeatedly the importance of projects such as this for economic development and job creation, and the state of Georgia, as always, stands ready to do its part.”

Meanwhile, the S.C. Ports Authority reported that Obama included more than $15 million in critical funding for its projects, including the Post-45 harbor deepening project.

Charleston Harbor is designated to receive $1.57 million in construction funding and $13.15 million in operations and maintenance funding.

The president’s budget also allocated the requested $695,000 to continue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study of the harbor deepening.

The ports authority plans to deepen the harbor to at least 50 feet to accommodate post-Panamax ships at all tides. At high tide, the harbor can handle ships drafting up to 48 feet.

The Army Corps’ environmental impact study is scheduled to be released this summer. In September 2015, the chief’s report will recommend to Congress a depth to dredge the harbor.

At Jacksonville, the Corps of Engineers has allocated $2.25 million in its 2014 Work Plan for the Preconstruction, Engineering and Design phase of the Jacksonville harbor deepening, Crenshaw said.

Looking ahead to 2015, the president’s budget contains a $3.15 million request in Army Corps funds to continue the PED, Crenshaw said.

The Jacksonville Port Authority has already started work on the PED phase of the project, spending $7.2 million of its own cash. The authority said it expects to be reimbursed by the federal government to pay for the work, which will take 18 to 20 months to wrap up.

Some officials cautioned that the money for any of the harbor projects is far from a done deal. The budget still needs to be passed by Congress, where legislators may add or subtract funds for projects, and then signed by the president.

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