SAVANNAH, Ga. — One of Capitol Hill’s most powerful voices on transportation policy said Wednesday he expects Congress by the end of this year will likely pass a bill that clears a final obstacle to deepening the Savannah harbor.
Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, joined fellow Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah Georgia for a tour of the city’s booming seaport. Georgia port officials and the Army Corps of Engineers are close to starting a $652 million project to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River used by cargo ships to reach the Savannah port.
But one bureaucratic obstacle remains: Congress put a $459 million spending cap on the harbor project in 1999. The limit needs to be updated for the Corps to begin dredging the river.
Shuster’s committee last week approved the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, a large water-projects bill containing language that would solve the Savannah port’s problem. Shuster said it should come up for a vote in the full House the week of Oct. 7. That would leave time for the House and Senate, which passed a different version of the bill in May, to agree on a final version before 2013 ends.
“I believe there is a high, high probability we’re going to have a WRRDA bill this year,” Shuster told reporters after his port tour. “...I look forward to passing it and making sure the Port of Savannah is clearly in the bill.”
Timing is important. Georgia and other East Coast ports are scrambling for federal permits and funding to deepen their shipping channels to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to start arriving via an expanded Panama Canal by mid-2015.
The federal government gave its final approval to deepening the Savannah harbor last year and Georgia lawmakers have set aside $231 million to cover most of the state’s 30-percent share of the project. But officials say the Army Corps can’t finalize a cost-sharing agreement between the state and federal governments or start awarding contracts until the 1999 spending cap gets raised.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said getting rid of the spending cap before New Year’s would enable the Army Corps to begin awarding construction contracts by the second quarter of 2014. Georgia port officials say it’s critical to have Savannah harbor dredging under way by the time the expanded Panama Canal opens in order to show shippers they will have a deeper waterway to the port. Savannah operates the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S. and the second-busiest on the East Coast.
Gov. Nathan Deal said during an unrelated Savannah stop Wednesday that as soon as the spending cap gets lifted he’ll be asking the Army Corps of Engineers to start dredging using almost entirely state taxpayer’s money, with the federal government chipping in its 70-percent share later. Federal funding has been tough to get with Congress and the White House focused on budget cuts and deficit reduction. And Deal said he expects it will take “a year or two or more” for Washington to find construction money for the Savannah harbor.
“It’s fine for them to play catch up. I just don’t want to have to wait around on them,” Deal told reporters after speaking to the International Agribusiness Conference and Expo in Savannah. “I want us to be able to get started because we do have our funds available.”
Vice President Joe Biden visited the Port of Savannah last week and said the harbor will get deepened “come hell or high water.” Still, the Obama administration included just $1.28 million for the project in his budget proposal last April. That’s far from the amount needed to start construction.
Kingston blamed long delays in studying the Savannah harbor project for driving up the price tag nearly $200 million since it was first approved.
“The reality is this was fully authorized in 1999,” Kingston said. “Then the federal government dithered around for 13 years.”
But Kingston, who sits on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said he’s confident Washington will come up with its share of the coast.