SAVANNAH, Ga. - Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he's willing to use state money to start deepening the Port of Savannah's busy shipping channel without waiting for funding from Washington as long as the federal government promises to pay its share of the $652 million project later.
Speaking to reporters during a stop in Savannah, Deal cautioned that a couple of bureaucratic hurdles remain before funding issues get finalized. But he said it's still possible for dredging to begin before the end of the year.
"Time is of the essence," said Deal, who already has $231 million in state funding set aside for the Savannah harbor expansion. "So therefore we have our money available and we're ready to spend it to begin this project. We think we need to start as quickly as possible."
Savannah and other East Coast seaports are racing to deepen their harbors to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal in 2015. The federal government gave final approval to the project last year. But focus in Washington on budget cuts and deficit reduction have made it difficult to secure federal funding.
Still, other remaining obstacles to construction have begun to fall. Environmental groups and state agencies in South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, agreed last week to settle lawsuits over the harbor expansion and let the Army Corps of Engineers move forward with the project. And last month the U.S. Senate agreed to remove a $459 million spending cap placed on the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999, though the House still needs to pass the measure.
Once the spending limit gets raised to the current $652 million price tag, the state can work out a cost-sharing agreement with the Army Corps. Deal said Tuesday he's prepared to ask the Corps for permission to spend the state's 40 percent share of the project upfront in order to avoid further delays waiting for Congress to approve the needed federal funds.
If funding is the only thing keeping the project from getting under way, "we are going to ask the secretary of the Army to give us the go-ahead to begin to spend our own money with the idea that they will contribute as quickly as possible," said Deal, who stopped in Savannah to speak to a conference of Southeastern foresters.
The governor said the state would need federal permission to start dredging without Washington's share of the money. "We don't have an absolute final answer on it," he said.
President Barack Obama's budget request for the next fiscal year, released in April, sought just $1.28 million for the Savannah harbor. That's tens of millions of dollars less than what's needed to start dredging. While Obama's budget is merely a spending recommendation to Congress, lawmakers have made it harder to add funding because they have sworn off so-called "earmark" spending used to insert pet projects in the past.
"If there are appropriations that are made for projects that are ready to go, then we should be very high on that list because we feel we are now ready to go," Deal said.
Savannah has the nation's fourth-busiest container port, second on the East Coast only to the port shared by New York and New Jersey. The Port of Savannah handled more than 2.9 million containers of exports and imports last year.
Georgia isn't the only port state getting impatient with the wait for federal funds. At the Miami port, work is under way to deepen its harbor after local government and Florida state officials decided to fund the $180 million project on their own and hope for federal reimbursement later. In South Carolina, where a deeper harbor for the Charleston port is being studied, state lawmakers have set aside the entire $300 million needed for the project in case they have trouble getting federal dollars.