SAVANNAH, Ga. - Just back from visiting the White House, Atlanta's mayor said Tuesday he expects Georgia will win "significant" funding from the federal government to begin a $600 million deepening of the Savannah harbor - an economic priority for the state that's been threatened by the federal budget crisis.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's ties to the Obama administration have made the Democrat one of the top pitchmen in Georgia's efforts to expand the Port of Savannah.
Officials want to deepen the Savannah River shipping channel by 6 feet to accommodate supersized cargo ships expected via an expanded Panama Canal by the end of 2014.
"I believe that we are going to be successful in obtaining a significant appropriation before the budget process concludes," Reed told reporters Tuesday after speaking in Savannah to a seminar of the American Association of Port Authorities.
Reed declined to discuss specifics of why he's so optimistic. But it's one of the most positive statements made by any supporter of the port expansion all year.
The Georgia Ports Authority is counting on federal permits being approved in time for construction to begin in 2012. Securing money from the federal government has proven extremely tough, with the president and Congress focused on cutting the deficit.
Also Republican members of Congress have sworn off so-called "earmarks" - line-item projects inserted into budgets by individual lawmakers, which are typically how port projects get funded - and President Barack Obama has pledged to reject them also.
Curtis Foltz, Georgia's port chief, said the soonest the project will be permitted by regulators is next spring. If the federal funds don't get included in the 2012 budget, but do get approved in 2013, that would only set construction back a few months because of the government's fiscal calendar, he said.
"It's clearly not the end of the world," Foltz said. "It just means it's another three months away."
Though he's mayor of a city 250 miles away, Reed has been aggressively pushing the Savannah port expansion in Washington. He made sure to mention it Monday at the White House, where Obama invited Reed and other mayors to discuss the economy.
Reed said his pitch to the White House and others in Washington has been simple, consistent and persistent: "The deepening of the Savannah port is consistent with the priorities of the nation. It is exactly in line with the president's focus on increasing the export capability for the U.S."
Monday was the Atlanta mayor's second Washington trip this month. Three weeks ago he joined Republican Gov. Nathan Deal for a bipartisan trip to Capitol Hill to strategize on the port expansion with Georgia's members of Congress.
After that meeting June 1, Deal said Georgia might have a chance at getting about $70 million - less than the $105 million port officials had wanted. The governor said he was "hopeful," but far from certain Congress would approve the port money.
Reed said work has continued behind the scenes in Washington. One reason he's keeping mum on specifics, the mayor said, is that other East Coast ports from New York to Miami are also seeking federal funds to deepen their harbors.
"I don't believe we should show our roadmap to people who are competing for the same dollars and for the same purpose," Reed said.