ATLANTA - Worried about the economic threat to the Port of Savannah posed by a potential competitor across the state line, Georgia budget writers are considering pulling money for port improvements out of the midyear budget.
Gov. Roy Barnes' budget request for the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30 includes $6 million in bonds to design an additional berth for the large cargo ships that have become increasingly popular in the shipping industry.
The Georgia Ports Authority is seeking approval from several federal agencies to deepen the Savannah harbor from 42 feet to as deep as 48 feet to better accommodate those larger ships.
But during a meeting Friday of legislative conferees to work out differences between the budget plans passed by the House and Senate, lawmakers expressed concern over a lawsuit involving Georgia and South Carolina.
The Georgia Department of Transportation has gone to federal court to try to block a move by South Carolina to condemn about 1,800 acres that Georgia owns on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. While Georgia uses the site to dump spoils from harbor dredging, South Carolina wants to build a privately run port there.
"If we're going to have that kind of competition across the river, there's a feeling among the conferees that maybe we shouldn't expand the Savannah port because (the money) may be wasted," said Rep. Terry Coleman, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the conferees.
But Rep. Ron Stephens, a member of Savannah's legislative delegation, said the port needs that money to compete with any potential rival.
"I totally understand the chairman's point of view, that it would be crazy to throw money after a bad investment," said Mr. Stephens, R-Garden City. "(But) if we don't spend the money, they're going to beat us. If we do spend it, at least we have a shot."
Mr. Coleman, D-Eastman, said lawmakers also are concerned that neither Savannah's business community nor Georgia's congressional delegation have spoken out in opposition to the South Carolina port proposal.
Bill Hubbard, president and CEO of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, said he expects the chamber to take a formal position on the South Carolina project within the next several weeks.
"We don't want anything to happen to threaten the positive economic success we have had with the port and the economic spinoff surrounding it," he said.
But Mr. Hubbard added that the issue is complicated by several factors, including whether a suitable location could be found to dump spoils if South Carolina wins the right to use the current dump site for a port. Another concern is whether the Port of Savannah could expand enough to meet the needs of the industry, he said.
James McCurry, legislative affairs manager for the ports authority, said the Port of Savannah has sufficient capacity to compete with all ports in the region but he, too, is concerned about the spoils.
"The loss of dredge disposal capacity could compromise the depth of the navigation channel and impact all port facilities ... dependent on the Savannah River," he said in a written statement.
Mr. Coleman said the conference committee will continue its work today and hopes to finish by Sunday. The conferees then would deliver their report to the House and Senate for final votes on the midyear budget by the middle of next week.