SAVANNAH - Georgia's two U.S. senators Tuesday blasted the Obama administration for failing to recommend funding to start the long-sought $652 million deepening of Savannah's busy shipping channel just six months after Vice President Joe Biden stood on the docks and promised the project would get done.
President Obama's proposed budget includes $10 million "for work on proposals" related to the deepening and/or widening of 12 ports. In addition to Charleston and Savannah, the other 10 projects are:
Freeport Harbor, Texas
Houston Ship Channel
Jacksonville Harbor, Fla.
New Haven Harbor, Conn.
Norfolk Harbor, Va.
Port of Long Beach, Calif.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Seattle Harbor, Wash.
Source: Army Corps of Engineers
Like other East Coast ports, including Charleston's, Savannah is scrambling to deepen its harbor to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion as early as next year.
Georgia officials have been pushing to get construction started this year and were looking to President Barack Obama to seek significant funding after the president touted the need for deeper water at U.S. ports over the past year. Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss said in a joint statement that Obama's budget contained no funding to start construction.
"We are deeply disappointed and frustrated," said the senators' statement, which blamed the Obama administration for holding up a project that would support thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars.
It wasn't immediately clear after Obama unveiled his fiscal 2015 budget proposal Tuesday what, if any, funding had been requested for the Savannah deepening. Last year, his budget included $1.28 million for continued study on the project, which won final approval in 2012.
The Army Corps of Engineers said in a statement Tuesday that Savannah, Charleston and 10 other port-deepening projects could divide $10 million from the new budget "for work on proposals" to expand the waterways.
"It's our understanding that S.C. ports have been included in the executive budget," the S.C. State Port Authority said in a statement. "The president and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have highlighted our ... project as a "We Can't Wait" initiative, and we look forward to seeing the final numbers as they are released to Congress."
Both Obama and Biden have made speeches in the last year in support of improving U.S. ports in order to grow jobs at home and boost U.S. exports. Savannah has the fourth-busiest containerport in the U.S. and the second busiest on the East Coast.
During an appearance on NBC's "Tonight" show in August, Obama mentioned Savannah as well as Charleston, and Jacksonville, Fla., as ports that needed deeper harbors to stay competitive as larger ships begin bringing goods through the Panama Canal.
A month later, on Sept. 16, Biden paid back-to-back visits to Charleston and Savannah, delivering much the same message. The vice president told 500 dockworkers and dignitaries gathered at the Port of Savannah: "We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water."
Georgia has already set aside $231 million, and Gov. Nathan Deal has requested more than $30 million from state lawmakers this year, for its 40 percent share. Deal has said he's willing to start construction using almost entirely state funding as long as the federal government pays the remaining $391 million on the back end.
South Carolina officials want to deepen Charleston's shipping channel to 50 feet from 45 by the end of the decade. A feasibility study is expected to be finished by fall 2015. The state has already reserved $300 million for the project in case the federal government doesn't fund it.
Georgia's congressional delegation announced in January that bureaucratic obstacles that had held up the Savannah project were eliminated. Lawmakers had hoped that would spur the Obama administration to request construction funding for fiscal 2015. They sounded dumbstruck Tuesday that it didn't happen.
"It is baffling to see this administration choose to ignore a statute passed just six weeks ago that cleared all remaining obstructions to moving forward with the project," Isakson and Chambliss said in their statement.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.