Deal: Georgia ready to fund harbor deepening if feds falter

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ATLANTA -- Georgia needs to be ready to finance the deepening of the Savannah River is the feds don't ante up, Gov. Nathan Deal told the Atlanta Press Club today.

He also renewed his pledge to push passage of the transportation sales-tax next year.

Asked if he thought the budget cutting by congressional Republicans would jeopardize Georgia’s chances of getting federal money for the $600-million deepening project, the governor said he’s hopeful but realistic.

“I’m not going to place any bets on whether or not we get it,” he said. “We’re going to have to be prepared in the alternative to do whatever the state of Georgia and the (Georgia) Ports Authority has to do in the event that federal funding does not come forward in a timely and appropriate sum.”

This year, he convinced the Georgia General Assembly to commit $32 million in bond borrowing to the project, raising the state taxpayers’ total investment so far to $125 million.

Having a strong transportation network -- on land, sea, rail and by air -- is key to job development, he said. The sales tax and the deepening of the river’s ship channel to accommodate bigger freighters are both vital to the state’s economy.

It’s not only Deal saying it. He recounted a conversation from his trip Tuesday to visit with bond-rating agencies.

“It’s amazing to me when you go to New York City and they ask how the deepening of the port of Savannah is going,” he said. “You know they are keeping up with what’s going on here.”

More than 20,000 businesses from every state in the nation ship cargo through the port, meaning funding would have a national impact rather than simply a local one.

The port is racing the clock. Expansion of the Panama Canal will be completed in 2014, easing passage of larger freighters that can only enter the Savannah River at high tide.

Ports Authority officials fear that unless the channel is deepened enough for the floating behemoths that ship owners will grow tired of the time and expanse of waiting for the tide to rise and will simply bypass Savannah for ports they can enter at low tide.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce backs Deal’s idea of using state resources to meet the 2014 deadline and prevent shipping lines from transferring out of the port.

“It’s one of those things: Where’s our alternative,” said Chamber President Chris Clark. “We’ve said all along, if (federal funds) are not an option, then we need to be looking at state and local options to get that done.”

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