Savannah and Charleston port communities well remember President Obama's announcement last July that the federal government would expedite their federal harbor deepening projects.
For Charleston, the president's action offered guarded expectations that the harbor's 45-foot channels could be deepened to 50-feet around 2020. And for our friends in Savannah, it meant the Savannah River deepening project could finally reach its bureaucratic finish-line by November 2012 and then on to construction — after nearly two decades of study and regulatory reviews.
The U.S. port industry thought President Obama had finally seen the light. His perky “Can't Wait” initiative clearly promised timely completion of federal harbor improvements as smart economic development.
But that was last July, when presidential campaign promises, implied and inferred, flowed freely. Nine months later, Savannah port officials must feel like they've been sucker-punched.
The Corps actually got the Savannah project to the finish line in October 2012, a month early. Georgia had appropriated its $220 million “local” share of the federal project. If a stack of lawsuits could be mediated, one of President Obama's featured harbor infrastructure projects would be shovel-ready early in 2013.
But now, notwithstanding the implied fast-tracking promises by the president last summer, it's going nowhere fast.
The president's proposed Fiscal 2014 budget includes a pittance for the project and fails to reconcile revised project costs and local and federal cost sharing. Savannahians have good reason to complain that the president simply failed to put federal money where his political mouth is — or was.
“Georgia has lived up to its promises,” Gov. Nathan Deal said last week. “We've now put aside $231 million; the federal government has funded only a small fraction of its obligations, and we would like to see more and quicker progress on this front.”
Mr. Obama's serial actions from “Can't Wait” last summer to his budget proposals last month suggest political pirouetting, but there's a larger issue: Does the president even understand what a federal navigation project is — and how the port system works?
Federal funding for strategically important navigation channels remains a garbled policy mess that could use some presidential attention.
Mr. Obama's proposed budget seeks only about $900 million in spending for “the coastal navigation portion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Civil Works Program,” the American Association of Port Authorities reported last week.
That's slightly more than last year, but still “hundreds of millions shy” of what's needed for America's ports, according to Kurt Nagle, AAPA's president and CEO.
Most port folks are glad to talk about money. After all, ports are big time cash collection stations for the federal government, a role too often ignored in public understanding of the strategic importance of U.S. ports.
The feds need to invest about $420 million to match Georgia's cost share of a project to improve “federal” channels. Consider that the United States collects about $1.4 billion annually in customs revenues at Savannah. In addition, the government collects about $49 million annually in harbor maintenance taxes at Savannah and Brunswick, and spends about half that.
Clearly, Savannah port operations are a healthy cash cow for the federal government, and Georgians have every reason to lament the need to beg for federal funding, if the Savannah River deepening project is, in fact, now shovel-ready.
The harbor maintenance tax is further evidence of federal policy jumble. Last year, this nationwide tax on import cargo value generated $1.8 billion, but Corps of Engineers spending on navigation channel maintenance was only $848 million. The surplus in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is now $7 billion, even as the nation's unfunded navigation system's maintenance needs grow.
Plainly, when it comes to the nation's port system, the federal government is a taker — and a talker.
Charleston's project is fast-tracking as President Obama promised, but it still has more regulatory review distance to travel before construction funding becomes critical. The price tag is $320 million, roughly half the proposed Savannah project. Last year, state Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, led an effort to fund the full cost of the Charleston project, including the federal share.
“Deepening our harbor is probably the most important thing we can do for economic development all over our state,” Leatherman said. “When the time comes to begin construction, we expect the federal government to pay its share, just as we are committed to cover South Carolina's share. But if there's any delay, then we have the funding in place to keep the project moving.”
Considering Savannah's challenges, the Leatherman initiative in time might prove to be a prized insurance policy against the vagaries of those confounding federal policies.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans, 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at email@example.com.
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