SAVANNAH, Georgia — Atlanta's mayor said Thursday he expects that Congress before the year ends will clear a bureaucratic hurdle to deepening the Savannah harbor, though he cautioned that Georgia officials are watching closely to make sure lawmakers don't try to eliminate the project from a massive water projects bill.
Kasim Reed spoke to reporters by phone Thursday after returning from a trip to Panama with Vice President Joe Biden. The mayor was part of a U.S. delegation that toured the Panama Canal, which plans to finish a major expansion in mid-2015. Savannah and other U.S. seaports are racing to deepen their shipping channels to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to sail through the larger canal.
The Georgia Ports Authority has the necessary permits to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River. But the project has been held up because its estimate cost of $652 million exceeds a spending cap imposed by Congress in 1999. Both the House and Senate this year have passed versions of a water projects bill that would raise the spending limit, but they still must agree on a final version.
"We're hearing we're going to have a bill to go to the president prior to Dec. 31," said Reed, who has served as Georgia's Democratic point man on the harbor project and worked closely with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. Both men called deepening the harbor in Savannah, home of the nation's fourth busiest container port, a vital economic development project for the entire state.
Once the spending cap is raised, Reed said, Georgia officials will focus on lobbying the Obama administration to begin funding the federal government's 70-percent share of the project. The president included $1.28 million for the Savannah harbor in his last budget proposal. That's a far cry from the amount needed to start dredging the Savannah River.
Reed raised the possibility that lawmakers from other states might try to strike the Savannah harbor spending provision from the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. Language lifting the old $459 million spending cap on the Savannah project was included in both the House and Senate versions of the bill, but Reed said he and other Georgia officials were focused on making sure it doesn't get "amended out" of the final version.
"This is politics. I'm not going to talk about ghosts, but it is smart to remain vigilant," Reed said. "This is a political process and you have to keep your eye on the ball."
The governor has said that once the spending cap gets raised, he plans to strike an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineer to begin construction using $231 million in state funds already set aside for the project. Deal said he's willing to let the federal government pay its share later.
Reed said Thursday that Georgia's share of the money should pay for about 18 months of work. He said that should be enough time to secure the first phase of federal funds for the Savannah project.
"I think we're going to get our commitment much faster than that," Reed said.
State officials expect the harbor expansion would be finished in 2017.