SAVANNAH - Georgia's port chief and Washington lawmakers said Friday they're confident a $652 million plan to deepen the busy shipping channel to the Port of Savannah will soon clear its last bureaucratic hurdle after 15 years of studies and delays.
Georgia officials have been waiting since October for the House and Senate to reach a compromise on a sweeping water-projects bill expected to eliminate an outdated spending cap on the Savannah Harbor expansion. House and Senate negotiators announced a deal Thursday night. The compromise was expected to win easy approval in both chambers before the end of May.
The Obama administration has said a $459 million spending cap placed on the Savannah project in 1999 - which is $193 million below current cost estimates - must be changed before the federal government can sign a final cost-sharing agreement with Georgia officials. That agreement would allow dredging of the Savannah River channel to begin using $266 million in state funding Georgia has already set aside.
"To me it's massively huge that this step looks like it's about to conclude," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "It's clear from the administration that until this step was accomplished, we were all going to be here sitting on our hands."
Foltz said if the measure meets final approval by Congress and is signed by the president as expected, he's confident construction will start in the coming months.
"We'll literally start seeing sand being moved before the year is out," Foltz said.
Details of the compromise version of the water-projects bill, including whether the language crucial for the Savannah Harbor deepening, won't be available until next week. Both the House and Senate passed versions of the bill last year that included the Savannah Harbor language.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Friday negotiators have assured him the Savannah port language wasn't a contentious issue and he expects to see it in the final compromise bill.
"It would be a total surprise if it wasn't," Isakson said. "I'm confident it's there."
Fellow Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss also seemed to have few doubts. He issued a statement saying, "This agreement will clear the last hurdle" for the Savannah Harbor.
Like other East Coast seaports, Savannah is scrambling to deepen its shipping channel to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to arrive via an expanded Panama Canal as soon as 2015. The plan calls for dredging 5 feet of sand and mud along a 30-mile stretch of the Savannah River linking the port to the Atlantic Ocean.
Gov. Nathan Deal has made the harbor deepening his top economic development priority. He and Georgia's congressional delegation were stunned in March when the White House refused to include construction funding for the federal government's 60-percent share of the project in the president's fiscal 2015 budget request. The Obama administration also balked at approving a cost-sharing agreement that would let Georgia get started with its own money.
Georgia congressmen, tired of waiting on the stalled water-projects bill, insisted they bypassed the need for it with language included in the omnibus spending bill the president signed in January. But the White House said it wouldn't budge without a water-projects bill that dealt with the old Savannah Harbor spending cap.
GOP lawmakers were reluctant to trust the White House to let the Savannah project move forward once the president signs the bill. Isakson said, "I want to see the ink dry on the piece of paper."
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, added: "You never know. This administration can surprise you."