SAVANNAH, Ga. - Georgia officials looking to Washington for substantial funds to begin deepening the waterway to Savannah's busy seaport found disheartening news Wednesday in President Barack Obama's proposed budget, which seeks just $1.28 million in the coming fiscal year for the $652 million harbor expansion.
The president's request fell far short of the amount - "tens of millions" but likely less than $100 million, according to Georgia's ports chief - the state hoped to see. The federal government gave final approval last fall to deepening the Savannah River from 42 to 47 feet between the port and the Atlantic Ocean. But getting federal money to start dredging has been extremely tough with Washington focused on budget cuts and deficit reduction.
"We're very disappointed," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "The administration had an opportunity to show some real progress on this important project and failed to do so."
Savannah and other ports on the East and Gulf Coasts are racing to deepen their harbors to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving in 2015 after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion. No U.S. port from North Carolina to Texas has a waterway deep enough to accommodate the massive ships if they're fully loaded and arrive at low tides.
Deal has made the harbor expansion, which Georgia officials have sought since the 1990s, a top priority for economic development. The Port of Savannah handled more than 2.9 million cargo containers of imports and exports last year, making it the fourth busiest container port in the nation - and second on the East Coast only to New York.
"This amount certainly falls far short of what we were hoping for, particularly considering the time pressures we face on this project," Deal said in a statement.
Georgia's members of Congress had mixed responses to how the White House's budget blueprint treated the Savannah harbor.
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, said he was baffled by the lack of construction funding after the Obama administration pledged last summer to expedite expansions at five major East Coast Ports, including Savannah, as part of an initiative called "We Can't Wait."
"Today it failed to honor that commitment by continuing to slow walk this project," Kingston said in a statement. "What happened to 'we can't wait'?"
Sen. Johnny Isakson, who was scheduled to have dinner with Obama and fellow GOP senators Wednesday night, said he was pleased the White House "continues to have a placeholder in the budget" for the Savannah harbor as it has done for the past two years.
While Obama's budget is merely a spending recommendation to Congress, lawmakers have made it harder to add funding for projects like the harbor expansion because they have sworn off so-called "earmark" spending used to insert pet projects in the past.
In Georgia, state lawmakers have approved more than $231 million for the harbor expansion. Foltz said it's possible the state might dip into that money to cover Washington's share for the first year of construction, with the expectation that the federal government would repay the funds. Both parties would have to sign off on such an arrangement in a partnership agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers.
"The bottom line is there is still a reasonable chance we'll get into construction this year," Foltz said.
Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps in Savannah, said another hurdle needs clearing first. When Congress authorized the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999, the total cost was to be about $450 million. Since then, more than $200 million has been added to the price tag. It's enough that Congress needs to approve a higher cost limit before dredging can begin, Birdwell said.