SAVANNAH - Close to getting underway after 15 years of government studies and delays, the deepening of Savannah's busy shipping channel has struck another political setback with the Obama administration saying it's not ready to seek construction funding for the $652 million project and won't let Georgia jumpstart things by using its own money.
Both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the past year have touted support for deeper harbors at Savannah and other port cities, but the administration's budget proposal released this week didn't back that up. A day after blasting the White House, saying it broke a promise to Georgians, Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday there's still preparation work to be done ahead of actual construction. And Georgia's ports chief said he believes any further delays will be relatively short.
"We were confident before that we could see dredging starting this year, and I'm still confident we will see it in 2014," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Dredging the river channel that connects the Port of Savannah to the Atlantic Ocean has been Deal's top economic development goal and the need for a deeper harbor to accommodate supersized ships grows as the Panama Canal gets closer to finishing a major expansion. U.S. ports along the East Coast, incldugin Charleston's, are scrambling for permits and funding to keep up with a fleet of cargo vessels that's only getting bigger.
Georgia officials are pushing hard to get the Savannah project started this year. They were stunned Tuesday when Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal 2015 and it contained no construction money for the Georgia project and just $1.52 million for further preparation.
Deal immediately announced Georgia would get started with more than $231 million already set aside for the state's 40 percent share. But the White House said it can't let the harbor expansion move ahead, no matter who's footing the bill, until Congress wins final passage of authorizing legislation that's been stuck since October.
The holdup stems from a sweeping water-project bill containing billions of dollars for dam, harbor and river improvements nationwide. The Democrat-controlled Senate approved a bill with $12 billion for water projects last May and the Republican-controlled House in October passed its version, worth about $8.2 billion. Four months later, the House and Senate have yet to agree to a final compromise.
The water projects bill contains language that would correct an outdated spending cap placed on the Savannah harbor expansion when it was first authorized by Congress in 1999. The price tag has grown by $193 million since then, and the White House says Congress needs to raise the spending limit before it can approve any construction.
"Because Congress hasn't reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in more than seven years, many projects like the project in Savannah, Ga., haven't been able to move forward," the White House said in a statement Tuesday evening. "This is not a budget problem, this is an authorization problem."
Georgia lawmakers insist construction on the Savannah harbor doesn't have to wait for a new water-projects bill because of bypass language inserted into the omnibus spending plan Congress and the president approved in January. It contained provisions suspending any spending caps on the Savannah harbor and other projects for two years, and essentially reclassified the Savannah expansion as a project that's already under construction rather than in a planning phase.
"We have waited, we have obtained every permit, we've passed every test, we've jumped every hurdle," said state House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican.
Deal said there's still environmental mitigation and other preliminary work that can be done along the 30-mile Savannah River channel before dredging begins, though he added "we cannot afford to wait any longer."
There may not be much else Georgia officials can do. Deal deflected a question about whether he'd be willing to take the issue to court. Foltz said the state officials and Georgia's congressional delegation were still assessing options, though all were stunned that even Deal's offer to start dredging without federal funding was rejected.
"We're talking about spending state money to help this nation recover," Foltz said. "I think there is genuine amazement, disappointment and shock across all of the elected officials."
In the last year, Obama specifically mentioned the need for deeper channels at Savannah as well as Charleston and Jacksonville, Fla., during an August interview with Jay Leno on NBC's "Tonight Show." And in September, Biden gave a dockside speech at the Port of Savannah at which he told about 500 port workers and dignitaries: "We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water."
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, said he talked last week with the House committee chairman who's among House-Senate negotiators on the water-projects bill. He couldn't say how soon they might strike a deal.
"These things can take a long time to get done," Kingston said.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans facing 2014 elections tried to blame each other.
Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who's running for governor, said fault lies with Deal because he's "played Washington politics at every opportunity and tried to put a stick in the eye of the administration."
Deal replied: "Surely to goodness someone who wants to be governor of this state would not say that the head of his own party is stooping to partisan politics on an issue that is so important."