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Deal says Georgia, Army Corps should finish agreement to deepen Savannah harbor this month

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SAVANNAH, Georgia — Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he expects an agreement with the federal government to be finalized later this month allowing Georgia to spend $266 million of its own money upfront to start deepening the busy shipping channel to the Port of Savannah.

If Georgia can sign a cost-sharing agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers before October, it's possible dredging could get underway in the Savannah River by the end of the year, Deal told reporters after speaking to local economic developers in Savannah.

"We're ready to start spending," Deal said. "We can't afford to wait."

Savannah and other East Coast seaports are scrambling to deepen their harbors to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving soon through an expanded Panama Canal. The Panama project's completion date, originally expected this October, has been pushed back to late 2015. And experts say further delays are possible.

The federal government gave its final approval to the Savannah harbor deepening almost two years ago, but it got held up by an outdated spending cap of $459 million placed on the project in 1999. In May, Congress raised the price tag to $706 million as part of a sweeping water projects bill. However, the federal government still hasn't put up enough of its 60 percent share to start construction.

Deal, who has touted the harbor expansion as Georgia's top economic development project, wants to use the state's 40 percent share to get started dredging of the 30-mile channel between the Savannah port and the Atlantic Ocean. The Army Corps, the federal agency overseeing the project, would have to sign off on that plan.

"My goal is to have that completed before the end of this month, which would be the signal for us to go ahead and start," Deal said, adding that Corps officials told him a week ago they hoped to start construction by the end of the year.

Georgia lawmakers have set aside $266 million for the harbor deepening that would be spent upfront. Deal said he still expects Washington to fund its share of the project later.

"We're going to hold the federal government accountable," the governor said.

Savannah has the nation's fourth-busiest port for containerized cargo. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Port of Savannah moved a record volume of more than 3 million cargo containers of imports and exports.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said he agrees it's still possible that construction on the Savannah harbor expansion could start before New Year's.

Foltz said the most recent estimates show the harbor deepening being finished in the first half of 2018.

"It can't happen quickly enough," Foltz said.

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