S The $652 million plan to deepen Savannah’s busy shipping channel remains very much on President Barack Obama’s radar, the mayor of Atlanta told coastal business and political leaders Thursday.

Dredging deal

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday in Charleston to formally settle lawsuits challenging the deepening of Savannah’s shipping channel. A tentative deal was reached in April.

Environmental groups and a South Carolina agency sued last year, contending that deepening the 32-mile shipping channel will dredge up toxic cadmium.

Under the proposed settlement, the Army Corps of Engineers would have to perform more mitigation, and the Georgia Ports Authority would provide more than $25 million in conservation efforts and transfer 2,000 acres of salt marsh to South Carolina.

The plaintiffs could go back to court if tests of equipment designed to replenish oxygen in the water do not work.

Associated Press

Kasim Reed addressed about 750 people at the annual luncheon of the Savannah Economic Development Authority just days after he spent several hours with Obama during the president’s visit to Atlanta last weekend. Obama’s proposed budget last month was a letdown for many in Savannah because it contained just $1.28 million for the harbor deepening, tens of millions of dollars less than Georgia officials had hoped to see.

“I know the recent budget appropriation concerns you all,” Reed said. “I want to speak directly to that in a candid way. Don’t be concerned about it a bit.”

With Georgia’s top elected offices now dominated by Republicans, Reed has stepped in as sort of a Democratic point man working to help sell the Savannah harbor expansion to the White House. Reed said he planned to raise the project with the president Sunday, but Obama brought it up himself during remarks at a Democratic fundraiser held after his graduation speech at Morehouse College.

“Let me tell you all what’s so important — I didn’t have to talk to him about it,” Reed told his Savannah audience. “When he talked about ports that needed to be deepened in the United States on his own, he referenced the Port of Savannah.”

Like other East Coast port cities, including Charleston, Savannah has been racing to deepen its shipping channel to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal completes a major expansion in 2015.

The project received final authorization from the federal government last year, but funding from Washington has been tough to get, with Congress and the White House focused on budget cuts and deficit reduction.

The Georgia Ports Authority wants to see dredging on the Savannah River begin by the end of this year. Gov. Nathan Deal has made the port expansion a priority, and Georgia lawmakers have approved $231 million in state funding for the project.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said Thursday that the target for completing the project, which would dredge 5 feet of sand and mud from more than 30 miles of the river, remains late 2016 or early 2017. He said the project should be better positioned to receive substantial federal dollars next year.

“Everyone’s galvanized on a significant play in the 2015 budget,” said Foltz, who acknowledged that “probably nothing is happening as quickly as we’d like it to in Washington.”

Congress authorized the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999. And Reed noted that the project has made rapid progress recently despite the funding issues.

Last year, Obama named Savannah among five U.S. ports he singled out for expedited harbor expansions.