SAVANNAH, Ga. — A Trump administration official said Friday that the president wants to avoid small-increment "dibble dabbling" of funding for projects such as the $973 million deepening of Savannah's busy shipping channel — an encouraging sign for Georgia officials concerned that a lack of commitment from Washington could delay the project.
R.D. James, the assistant Army secretary for civil works, spoke with reporters Friday in Savannah after a two-day visit that included a tour along the Savannah River stretch that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Savannah.
The Army Corps of Engineers is about midway through deepening the waterway to make room for larger cargo ships arriving on the East Coast after transiting the recently expanded Panama Canal. Savannah and other East Coast ports, including the Port of Charleston, are competing for federal dollars to deepen their harbors.
This year the federal government came up with $85 million to fund the Savannah harbor expansion — the largest amount Washington has spent on the project in a single year since dredging began in September 2015. The state of Georgia's share of the cost has already been spent, and state officials have said the project could face delays if federal funding dips again.
James said President Donald Trump "wants to prioritize projects that do the best job for the nation," and that likely accounts for the recent funding increase for the Savannah harbor deepening.
"The president also wants to fund projects to completion," James said, "not this dibble dabbling along for 20 years — a little bit this year and a little bit next year."
The Army Corps has said the Savannah harbor deepening could wrap up by January 2022 if dredging continues without delays.
Neighboring seaports in Charleston and Jacksonville, Florida, are also seeking federal dollars for their own deepening projects. Asked if he would push to keep the Savannah harbor funded after returning to Washington, James said: "I'm not going to tell you I'm going to be an advocate for any individual project."
The $558 million Charleston Harbor deepening project received $49 million in federal funding this year, and South Carolina officials have loaned another $50 million to the State Ports Authority to keep dredging on track. The Army Corps is revising the project's cost-to-benefit ratio, and port officials hope that helps boost the amount of federal dollars set aside for the project, which started this year.
“The (cargo) volumes are clearly higher, the ships are bigger, so in my judgment the ratio should be significantly higher,” Jim Newsome, the authority's president and CEO, told The Post and Courier.
Typically, higher ratios result in more federal dollars. For example, the Savannah project's ratio was revised upward last year, leading to an increase in funding.