SAVANNAH — More than two years after the federal government approved deepening the waterway used by cargo ships to reach the Port of Savannah, President Barack Obama on Monday began pushing for $42 million to start helping Georgia pay for the $706 million project.
The fiscal 2016 budget proposed by the White House asks Congress to approve about $21 million for the long-sought Savannah harbor expansion. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers said it plans to increase funding this year an additional $21 million. It's the first promising sign Washington is ready to start funding its 60-percent share of the project, which totals more than $400 million.
Last year the harbor deepening got just $1.5 million in federal funds. Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia's congressional delegation negotiated an agreement allowing construction to begin this year using $266 million the state of Georgia had already set aside. An infusion of federal cash was needed soon. Army Corps officials expect to burn through most of the state's money this year.
"This funding, along with the state's investment of $266 million, will allow the port deepening to move along as scheduled for now," Deal said in a statement. "However, in order to see this project through to completion on time, a larger federal share is needed."
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said the funding breakthrough from Washington indicates that "everybody is in lockstep" that the harbor dredging needs to happen without further delays.
"We're extremely pleased with what we heard today," Foltz said. "Of course, we'll never be satisfied until the last dollar is funded and the last scoop of mud is out of the river."
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling to deepen its shipping channel to make room for giant cargo ships expected to start arriving next year via an expanded Panama Canal. The Port of Savannah is the fourth-busiest container port in the nation, having handled more than 3 million containers of imports and exports last year.
The Army Corps of Engineers plans to dredge 5 feet from sand and mud from the 39-mile stretch of the Savannah River connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the docks upstream from downtown Savannah. Dredging of the outer harbor off Tybee Island should begin later this year. Meanwhile, work began last week to raise the remains of the Confederate warship CSS Georgia, which must be removed before the inner harbor can be deepened.
If all goes smoothly, the harbor expansion should be completed by 2020.
Georgia officials expected to get federal construction funds last year, but the White House insisted Congress first raise an outdated spending cap placed on the project in 1999.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson called the funding announcements Monday "welcome but long overdue."
The president's proposed budget also includes $8.6 million to dispose of muck dredged from the river channel to maintain its current depth of 42 feet. Billy Birdwell, an Army Corps spokesman in Savannah, said the money doesn't count toward the harbor expansion.