SAVANNAH, Georgia — The Obama administration requested $42.7 million on Tuesday to fund a second year of work to deepen Savannah's busy shipping channel, though Georgia officials said the amount falls far short of what's needed to keep the project on schedule.
Dredging began in September to deepen 39 miles of the Savannah River to make room for larger cargo ships to reach the Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port and No. 2 on the East Coast.
President Barack Obama's budget proposal for fiscal 2017 calls for roughly half the $80 million to $100 million in federal dollars Georgia officials say the Savannah harbor expansion needs each year to avoid delays.
Washington has committed to pay 60 percent of the $706 million project, which began construction in September. Without any setbacks, work isn't expected to wrap up until 2021.
Members of Georgia's congressional delegation promised to fight for increased funding on Capitol Hill, where budgets have been tight for years.
"It's just the beginning," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican, who noted the harbor expansion's status as an in-progress construction project helps improve the odds. "We've just got to go to work and do it."
Like other East Coast seaports, Savannah is scrambling for deeper water to accommodate giant ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal later this year. Until the deepening project is finished, the big ships will have to travel the Savannah River at higher tides while carrying lighter loads.
"It doesn't do us any good to have it half complete," said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican whose district includes Savannah. "If we get $50 million a year for the next 10 years, we can finish the project. If we get $100 million a year, we can finish it in five years."
Federal money is critical now because Georgia funded its $266 million share of the harbor deepening upfront to get the project started. The Army Corps of Engineers has already used the state's funds to award multiyear contracts.
"The Corps and the administration have been committed to this project for a very long time," Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant Army secretary for civil works, said during a news conference Tuesday in Washington.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who has called the harbor expansion his top economic development priority, said in a statement that Obama's budget request "underfunds arguably the most critical dredging project in the country."
"The federal government gave Georgia its word and must do more to uphold its obligations," Deal said.