SAVANNAH — Gov. Nathan Deal said he would have Georgia taxpayers pay a heftier portion of the $653 million tab to deepen the Savannah harbor rather than delay the project if the federal government hasn’t funded its share once it’s time to start dredging.

Deal, speaking at the Port of Savannah on Tuesday, said he believes Washington should honor its commitment to cover 60 percent of the project. But with federal dollars still tight and time running out before supersized cargo ships can start using an expanded Panama Canal, the governor said he is willing do what is necessary to begin deepening the Savannah River as soon as possible.

Asked what would happen if the president and Congress do not find dredging money for the harbor soon, Deal said, “We’ll spend our money.”

“We hope we don’t get to that point,” he said. “But it may be one of those things that, if that becomes necessary, we begin the project and hopefully get (federal) funding after the fact to reimburse the state.”

Savannah and other East Coast ports, including Charleston, are racing to deepen their harbors in anticipation of mammoth container ships arriving via Panama once its canal expansion is finished in 2014.

The Army Corps of Engineers issued its final report this month calling for dredging 5 feet from the bottom of the Savannah harbor for a depth of 47 feet. The Georgia Ports Authority is hoping to win final approval later this year.

Even on that timetable, and ignoring court challenges pending in South Carolina that could delay or halt the project, the deepening wouldn’t be finished until 2016.

Georgia port officials say if dredging isn’t under way by the time the expanded Panama Canal opens, the state risks losing shipping business to competitors with deeper water. Savannah has the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S.

Lawmakers in South Carolina, which is seeking to deepen the Charleston harbor, are proposing to authorize additional state borrowing to cover the federal portion of their project should Washington come up short. That bill was working its way through the legislative process Wednesday.