SAVANNAH, Ga. — Close to getting underway after 15 years of government studies and delays, the deepening of Savannah’s busy shipping channel hit another political snag with the Obama administration saying it’s not ready to seek construction funding for the $652 million project and won’t let Georgia jumpstart things with its own money.
A day after blasting the White House, saying it broke a promise to Georgians, Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday there’s still preparation work to be done ahead of actual construction. And Georgia’s ports chief said he believes any further delays will be relatively short.
“We were confident before that we could see dredging starting this year and I’m still confident we will see it in 2014,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Dredging the river channel that connects the Port of Savannah to the Atlantic Ocean has been Deal’s top economic development goal and the need for a deeper harbor to accommodate supersized ships grows as the Panama Canal gets closer to finishing a major expansion. The holdup stems from a sweeping water-project bill containing billions of dollars for dam, harbor and river improvements nationwide. The Democrat-controlled Senate approved a bill with $12 billion for water projects last May and the Republican-controlled House in October passed its version, worth about $8.2 billion. Four months later, the House and Senate have yet to agree to a final compromise.
“Because Congress hasn’t reauthorized the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in more than seven years, many projects like the project in Savannah, Ga., haven’t been able to move forward,” the White House said in a statement. “This is not a budget problem, this is an authorization problem.”
Deal said there’s still other preliminary work that can be done before dredging begins, though he added “we cannot afford to wait any longer.”
There may not be much else Georgia officials can do. Foltz said state officials and Georgia’s congressional delegation were assessing options, though all were stunned that even Deal’s offer to start dredging without federal funding was rejected.
“We’re talking about spending state money to help this nation recover,” Foltz said. “I think there is genuine amazement, disappointment and shock.”
In the last year, Obama specifically mentioned the need for deeper channels at Savannah as well as Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., during an August interview with Jay Leno on NBC’s “Tonight Show.” And in September, Biden gave a dockside speech at the Port of Savannah at which he told about 500 port workers and dignitaries: “We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water.”
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, said he talked last week with the House committee chairman who’s among House-Senate negotiators on the water-projects bill. He couldn’t say how soon they might strike a deal.
“These things can take a long time to get done,” Kingston said.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans facing 2014 elections tried to blame each other.
Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who’s running for governor, said fault lies with Deal because he’s “played Washington politics at every opportunity and tried to put a stick in the eye of the administration.”
Deal replied: “Surely to goodness someone who wants to be governor of this state would not say that the head of his own party is stooping to partisan politics on an issue that is so important.”