SAVANNAH, Georgia — A $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by Congress includes a small amount of money to help begin deepening the Port of Savannah's shipping channel, and Georgia officials said they're confident more federal funding will follow once the $706 million project gets underway.
The budget measure sent to the White House over the weekend included $1.5 million in construction funding for the harbor expansion, which is expected to get started in early 2015 after more than 15 years of studies, lawsuits and bureaucratic delays. Savannah, which has the nation's fourth-busiest container port, is racing for deeper water to make room for larger cargo ships expected to begin arriving in 2016 via an expanded Panama Canal.
Congress has appropriated small sums for the Savannah project since 2009. This latest installment would cover less than 1 percent of the $250 million the Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend in the first year of construction. The federal government has committed to pay 60 percent of the final cost, but budgets have been tight in Washington, so Gov. Nathan Deal agreed to start dredging using $266 million in state money upfront.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said Monday that the inclusion of construction money in the spending bill "is a good sign that significant funding will be in place going forward."
Three of the harbor expansion's major proponents in Congress — Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston and Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss — noted the spending bill also contains language that the Obama administration should treat the Savannah harbor deepening as an "ongoing construction project" in future budget requests.
"Congress has made clear that the project should move forward without further delay," Kingston said in a prepared statement Monday.
The Corps plans to deepen the Savannah River shipping channel by 5 feet along a 39-mile stretch that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the port's docks upstream from downtown Savannah. Work isn't expected to be finished until 2020, and that's if everything goes smoothly.
The project cleared its final bureaucratic hurdles this year after Congress raised an outdated spending cap placed upon the harbor expansion when it was first authorized for study in 1999. In October, state and federal officials signed a cost-sharing agreement that allowed the Corps to begin soliciting bids on two contracts for the first year of construction.