SAVANNAH — During a late-night TV interview with Jay Leno, President Barack Obama slipped in a plug for three seaports — including Charleston’s — that are seeking federal funds to make room for larger cargo ships.
Obama used his Tuesday night appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show” to push for bipartisan cooperation in funding infrastructure improvements such as widening roads and repairing bridges. The president told Leno that U.S. ports on the East and Gulf coasts need deeper harbors to stay competitive as the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion in 2015 that will give supersized container ships a shortcut between the U.S. and Asia.
“If we don’t deepen our ports all along the Gulf — places like Charleston or Savannah or Jacksonville, Fla. — if we don’t do that, these ships are going to go someplace else and we’ll lose jobs,” Obama said.
It’s not the first time Obama has given a shoutout to the ports and their need for deeper shipping channels. A year ago, all three cities were singled out by the White House as being worthy of expedited expansion. Obama mentioned Savannah’s $652 million harbor project in May during his graduation speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta. And he just visited the Port of Jacksonville, which wants to deepen 14 miles of the St. Johns River for an estimated $733 million, for a speech on the economy July 25.
And while the president, who has yet to visit South Carolina since taking office, continues to indicate port expansions are on his radar, Washington has had trouble finding money to pay for the expensive dredging projects amid budget battles focused on cutbacks and deficit reduction.
Projects for Charleston, which is seeking up to $350 million to deepen its harbor, and Jacksonville are still undergoing studies by the Army Corps of Engineers that are required before they can receive permits and construction funding.
Charleston is seeking to take its shipping channel to 50 feet from 45 feet to accommodate, regardless of the tide, ships larger and heavier than the MSC Tomoko. That 1,089-foot-long container vessel is scheduled to tie up to the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant by early Thursday afternoon.
“We are grateful for the attention and the president’s recognition that ports in the Southeast are vitally important to creating jobs and supporting our economy,” said Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority. “His initiative to double exporting activity can only be achieved by modernizing our seaports and related infrastructure.”
The Port of Savannah received final approval from the federal government last fall to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River. But the federal budget proposal Obama issued in April contained just $1.28 million for the Savannah harbor — tens of millions of dollars less than Georgia officials hoped to see. Part of the problem is a spending cap of $459 million Congress placed on the project in 1999. The Senate voted to raise the limit in May, but the House still needs to approve it. Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia officials are hoping the Savannah harbor will fare better getting federal funds next year.
“The president has our phone number. We’d like for him to call,” Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Wednesday. “We’ll grab (Atlanta) Mayor Kasim Reed and fly to Washington at the drop of a hat to meet with him if that’s what it takes to get this project in his budget for next year.”
Meanwhile, Deal has said several times he’s considering paying for the first year of Savannah harbor dredging mostly with state money if the federal government can’t come up with its share until later.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said ports across the region risk losing access to growing export markets overseas if they can’t accommodate larger cargo ships.
“We agree with the president’s comments that this region needs improved ports, including in Charleston and Jacksonville,” Foltz said. “The president will have a great opportunity to show his support for the Savannah harbor deepening in his fiscal 2015 budget proposal to Congress” next year.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.