The nearer Georgia gets to dredging the Savannah River the clearer it is that the process is not working in a cost-effective manner. Consider the endorsement of the project by a spokesman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Last week, the Savannah District of the Corps gave its approval for 38 miles of the Savannah River to be deepened to 47 feet, at a cost of $652 million.
The district commander, Col. Jeff M. Hall, said, “The project will enhance the nation’s global competitiveness while sustaining the natural environment.”
Despite those findings, environmentalists have serious concerns that the dredging would endanger fish and marine life.
And then there is the obvious issue: spending a large chunk of scarce federal money for a project that could be inadequate and redundant.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has a better idea for deciding how to fund projects that once were paid for by earmarks.
He has asked the Corps of Engineers to look at the nation’s port needs and outline the best and most efficient way to meet those needs regionally instead of state by state.
The report would recommend which ports should accommodate the oversized post-Panamax ships and which should serve secondary functions. It could eliminate unnecessary duplication and overspending.
Some in the shipping industry say there is no need for both Savannah and Charleston to have ports deep enough to accommodate the larger ships. One would do. And it would cost half as much for Charleston to deepen the harbor channel to 50 feet than it would for to deepend the Savannah River to 47 feet (which might not be deep enough anyway).
To muddy the waters even more, Georgia and South Carolina together have been planning for a port closer to the ocean on the Savannah River. It would require a depth of 50 feet.
But without changes in the decision-making process, ports all along the coast are likely to push ahead for federal funds. Charleston included. Indeed, Sen. Graham has been a leading force in securing federal funding so that Charleston can complete a study necessary before harbor deepening would be allowed.
Several lawsuits in South Carolina and in Georgia have been filed, which will slow things for the Savannah River dredging. They all involve a decision by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to issue a permit for the Georgia project.
Ten East Coast ports want deepening projects. As older ships are retired, they are likely to be replaced by much larger ones.
And as the Panama Canal project is completed, East Coast ports should be able to compete with those on the West Coast.
The canal will be finished in 2014, and shipping is a key element in the country’s global competitiveness. Meanwhile, people are concerned about the nation’s deficit and want money to be spent judiciously.
Deliberations about port deepening projects should set an example for wiser spending to achieve greater efficiencies. They underscore the importance of Sen. Graham’s national port initiative.