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Tuesday July 28th, 2015 6:26AM

Gov. Deal in Panama to tour canal expansion

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday that the major Panama Canal expansion that's underway underscores the need for the Port of Savannah to deepen its shipping channel.

Deal was in Panama to tour the canal. He said in a phone interview that he was impressed with the scope of the work being done there to make way for super-sized cargo ships.

"They are making substantial progress," Deal said, adding that the Panama Canal project was on track to be completed in early to mid-2015.

Meanwhile, Georgia's effort to deepen 30 miles of the Savannah River to accommodate the larger ships is waiting on Congress to eliminate a final bureaucratic hurdle. The Port of Savannah is the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S. The deepening effort also needs substantial construction funding from the federal government, which is supposed to cover 70 percent of the project.

Ports along the East Coast have been working on federal permits and funding to deepen their shipping channels to accommodate the larger ships that will soon be passing through the Panama Canal. On the East Coast, only the ports of New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., have water deepen enough to accommodate the ships with full loads and at lower tides.

In Georgia, port officials have received the required permits, but the $652 million project has been held up because when Congress authorized the project in 1999, it had a spending cap of $459 million. In May, the Senate approved the higher cost as part of a larger water projects bill that still must pass the House.

Deal said the state is eager to start spending its money to begin deepening the Savannah shipping channel to accommodate the larger ships. Georgia lawmakers have allocated $231 million for the project.

"If it was up to Georgia, we would have been dredging a long time ago," the Republican governor said.

During the last fiscal year, state ports in Savannah and Brunswick handled a combined 27.23 million tons of imports and exports, an increase of 2.4 percent over the previous fiscal year. Revenues at Georgia's ports totaled nearly $293 million, up $9 million from the previous year.

Last week, Vice President Joe Biden visited the Port of Savannah and pledged: ``We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water.'' Biden reiterated the Obama administration's support for the project and called the infrastructure work a critical tool to help grow the economy. He called on Congress to find money for the project.

As soon as the final bill is passed to raise the spending cap, Deal said he plans to seek permission to start using the state funds so that work can begin.

``Time is of the essence,'' Deal said, noting that the Savannah project has already missed the opportunity to meet the 2015 deadline of the Panama Canal expansion. ``The sooner we can start the better.''

Deal is scheduled to return to Georgia on Tuesday.
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