SAVANNAH — While acknowledging it’s a bad time to seek money from Washington, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said Wednesday he’s pushing hard to get federal funding to begin deepening the shipping channel to the Port of Savannah by the end of 2013.
The Georgia Republican said during a visit to the bustling seaport that the harbor deepening is his top issue to discuss with President Barack Obama next week when the president joins Isakson and other GOP senators for dinner.
They’ll be dining the same day Obama plans to release his proposed budget, which Georgia port officials hope will include money to start construction on the $652 million project.
“We’re still working diligently in Washington to close the deal,” Isakson said. “And we’re very, very close.”
Savannah and other East Coast ports, including Charleston’s, are scrambling to deepen their shipping channels to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion. That work is expected to be finished in 2015.
Even before the canal project added urgency to the issue, the Georgia Ports Authority had been working since the 1990s to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River between its docks and the Atlantic Ocean. The federal government, which spent $41 million studying the project, gave final approval last October to deepen the harbor from 42 to 47 feet.
Now the major hurdle is money, though a federal lawsuit filed in South Carolina by environmental groups opposed to the project remains unresolved as well. The federal government is on the hook for 70 percent of the cost. Getting any sizable funding from Washington at a time when lawmakers are focused on painful budget cuts won’t be easy.
“You’re talking about a lot of money,” Isakson said. “And we’re having a lot of problems in Washington with money.”
The Army Corps of Engineers said last fall it hoped to begin dredging by this summer. Asked when realistically the corps might get funding to start that work, Isakson declined to give a specific timetable but said “this is the year that we have to get the job done.”
Obama has called for expediting improvements at U.S. ports to help spur the economy and has included a line item for the Savannah project in past budgets. Last year the president’s budget included $2.8 million for the Savannah harbor project — enough to keep it on Washington’s radar but far less than the $105 million Georgia officials wanted to put toward the start of construction.
If Obama doesn’t come up with the money in his upcoming budget, scheduled to be released next Wednesday, Georgia officials are looking at other options.
Steve Green, vice chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority board, said $231 million the state has already appropriated for its share of the cost could be tapped to cover the federal share of the first phase of dredging if no money comes from Washington. But he said the move would need approval from the federal government, which has authority over maintaining navigable waters.
Green said port officials are still pushing to get the work started before the end of this year.
“That’s the most we can hope for,” Green said.