It’s been nearly five months since the Army Corps of Engineers officially received details for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, which will expand and deepen the Port of Savannah and the Savannah River, and officials are now waiting on funding to complete the project.
Gov. Nathan Deal asked the state legislature in January to add $50 million in funding for the project, bringing the state's current contribution to $231 million of an anticipated $261 million, and now officials are waiting to see how much of the remaining $652 million price tag will be approved by the federal government.
“The balance is the responsibility of the federal government,” Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said during the 2013 Georgia Logistics Summit. “We’re in the first federal budget cycle since the project has been approved, and we’re eagerly anticipating and waiting the release of the president’s budget.”
Foltz expects the budget will be released in early April, but even without federal money, the project is still moving forward. Property needed to expand the channel is currently being acquired, and engineers are finishing up their work, he said. Foltz expects the dredging contract to be issued in the second half of the year.
If all goes well, the deepening of the Savannah River will be completed during the second half of 2016, trailing the opening of the expanded Panama Canal by a year.
“We’re real excited about it,” Foltz said. “It’s something that’s long overdue.”
During the conference, Deal noted it's important to successfully complete the project to bolster Georgia’s economy and further strengthen its transportation network. He pointed out that Caterpillar, which recently moved to Georgia, will use the port as an export point for products produced in the state.
“We are very proud of the growth that has occurred in that port,” he said. “We’re working very hard to have the funds available so that we can deepen the harbor and the channel leading to the harbor.”
In the bigger picture, the Savannah project is representative of what is needed around the nation, Foltz said. Ports in the United States are growing older by the day, and the nation’s port system is getting lapped in the international marketplace by countries that continue to invest and create better efficiencies in their port systems.
With President Obama’s goal of doubling exports by 2015 on 2010 levels, creating a national ports strategy and ramping up investment is more important than ever, Foltz said. He noted by 2020 volumes moving through the nation’s ports are expected to double. By 2030, they will double again.
“We don’t have enough capacity long term, in my opinion,” he said. “We’ve got to have a strategy at the national level that’s committed to building the best infrastructure in the world if we want to truly compete on an international basis.”
Along with maintaining and enhancing the ports, connectivity points need to be addressed. This is where the ports plug into the nation’s entire transportation system; road projects and needed rail improvements need to be taken on in a sustainable way, he said.
Foltz believes the support for the Savannah project and other needed developments is there on a local, state and regional level, but he said the federal government should do more to create funding for the ports. Foltz said port issues aren’t limited to the Southeast and that “every single state has a story about ports not being maintained.” To turn what is generally seen as a lack of funding around, the federal government should examine the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which takes in $1.5 billion a year through import taxes to maintain the harbors. Foltz said only $600 million to $700 million in only used for its real purpose.
“They’re taking half of that money and using it to help balance the general fund, not maintain the harbors,” he said.
The Southeast, as a whole, needs to be a driving force moving forward. Foltz suggested the first step to creating port strength in the region is to maintain current harbors where maintenance is needed, and only after that is accomplished, expand the depth of the ports. Georgia has to focus on its own needs, but linking strategies together and working on projects across state lines like the Jasper County port project, should be realized, he said.
“We don’t only need growth in our infrastructure and our port capacity in Georgia,” Foltz said. “We need South Carolina to do the same, we need Florida to do the same, if the southeast is going to maintain its reputation for economic leadership throughout the nation.” - Jon Ross