By RUSS BYNUM
SAVANNAH, Ga. - Georgia's 15-year push to deepen the river channel to the booming Port of Savannah got a big endorsement Tuesday from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a member of President Barack Obama's cabinet who finished a port tour by throwing his support behind the $600 million project and saying: "It has to happen."
The secretary's hosts, Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, sat grinning - and perhaps a little surprised - as LaHood promised to convene a meeting of stakeholders in Washington next month to help find funding for the port expansion, which has had a tough time securing money from a Congress focused on trimming the budget deficit.
"We'll figure out how to get the federal dollars to make this project happen," LaHood told Georgia officials and reporters near the dock as giant cranes lifted cargo containers in the background. "It has to happen."
Savannah, the nation's fourth largest container port, and its competitors on the East Coast are scrambling for federal funding and permits to deepen their harbors to accommodate supersized cargo ships expected to arrive via the Panama Canal after it completes a major expansion in 2014.
LaHood's endorsement could help Savannah stand out among the competition in Washington. The port's explosive growth over the past decade has continued despite the struggling economy. It's also become a major exporter of American goods heading overseas. In the past fiscal year, Savannah exported 6.84 million tons of containerized cargo - more than any U.S. seaport but Los Angeles.
"The expansion of this port is a job creator," LaHood said. "It fits the president's agenda of putting people back to work."
Deal and Reed, who have become Georgia's bipartisan tag team in pushing the port expansion, met with LaHood during a trip to Washington in June. The secretary mentioned Tuesday that he was impressed to see a Republican governor and a Democratic mayor working together on a shared economic priority. Deal and LaHood, both former GOP congressmen, also served in the House together.
Hoping to win final federal permits to start dredging the Savannah River by mid-2012, Georgia has set aside $134 million for the harbor expansion and Deal says he'll ask for $47 million more next year. Still, the state is counting on the federal government to foot 60 percent of the total bill.
Obama allocated $600,000 for the Savannah project in his proposed budget this year. That's not much compared to the $360 million in federal funds that are needed. Deal said he was happy to hear LaHood say he would meet next month with the agencies involved and Georgia's congressional delegation to look for more money.
"Those are very welcome words to me," Deal said. "Certainly the secretary, I think brings, an objectivity to this kind of project. We're just pleased he's now had the opportunity to see what we've actually done up to this point."
LaHood's visit came after several weeks focused on jousting over the Savannah project between Georgia and South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River and operates a competing port in Charleston. South Carolina's environmental agency gave notice last month that it was denying a water-quality permit sought by the Army Corps of Engineers for the Savannah deepening, saying it would do unacceptable environmental harm to the river's endangered fish and fragile marshes.
Deal won a guaranteed appeal hearing after meeting with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and all sides reached a settlement last week to allow the project to move forward. But a South Carolina stakeholders group, including a key lawmaker and the head of the state's Department of Natural Resources, are outraged and say the deal sold out the state's environmental and economic interests. They're threatening a court challenge to the settlement, which would require protection of additional marshland and assurance that Georgia will fund some mitigation measures if the federal government doesn't.
"We think it was a fair settlement," Deal said. "And we look forward to moving forward on the agreement."
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said he's still counting on a major allocation of federal funding next year before the dredging project gets final approval from the government.
LaHood pledged to do his part in working with Congress and federal agencies to find federal dollars. But he noted there are limits to what he can deliver.
"I don't pull out checks," LaHood said. "What I do is convene meetings of all the stakeholders, of all the colleagues who work in President Obama's administration and say 'this is a priority."'