Savannah port expansion backers say Obama budget short-changes project

As dredging work to deepen the Port of Savannah continues, the Obama administration on Tuesday proposed $42.7 million in new construction funding for fiscal 2017, angering the project’s political boosters who pushed for roughly twice as many federal dollars in the president’s budget.

Top officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the spending level in their proposal for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 is reflective of what is doable given current funding conditions.

“The corps and the administration have committed to this project for a very long time. The ($42.7 million) that’s in the ’17 budget is reflective of what it is that’s affordable given all of the needs across the program for the Corps of Engineers,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said at a news conference.

Darcy said that when also taking into account the roughly $45.4 million in fiscal 2016 money immediately available for the project from a government spending package approved by Congress in December, the port expansion work would receive more than $88 million from the Army Corps of Engineers over a two-year period.

That was not enough to please many of the biggest political backers of the expansion, which is estimated to cost $706 million and is considered Georgia’s top economic development project.

Gov. Nathan Deal said the proposal for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP, “falls short,” and he vowed to leverage the clout of the Georgia delegation in Congress to eke out more money for the port.

“I will be calling once again on our partners in the congressional delegation, who have advocated tirelessly for SHEP funding. I’m confident they will do everything possible to prioritize funding for the Army Corps of Engineers’ SHEP construction to ensure the project stays on track for completion within five years,” Deal said in a statement. “The federal government gave Georgia its word and must do more to uphold its obligations.”

Georgia supporters were shooting for a federal contribution of at least $80 million to $100 million for the upcoming budget year, which they said would help the project keep pace with its construction schedule and avoid any extra costs that could stem from a delay. Boosters are hoping to complete work by the end of the decade.

Georgia GOP Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, along with Pooler Republican Rep. Buddy Carter, whose congressional district includes the project, decried the proposal and pushed for an explanation from the White House.

“It is unacceptable and frustrating that the Obama administration has decided to ignore its commitment to SHEP,” said Carter, who vowed to do “everything in my power” to ensure the government provides more funding. “Failing to provide adequate funding for this critical project will result in delays and threaten to increase the cost to taxpayers,” he said.

The corps also included in its budget proposal a separate $23.5 million request for operations and maintenance for the Savannah harbor.

The port expansion is projected to have a $39 billion impact on the state’s economy. It would deepen the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet in order to make room for larger cargo ships coming through the Panama Canal, which is wrapping up expansion work of its own.

The project, which was the subject of years of political skirmishes and environmental hand-wringing, has united Georgia leaders from both parties. Deal and state legislators have put up $266 million for the project and are expecting a total of $440 million from the federal government in order to complete the project by 2020.

Not everyone in Georgia was decrying Tuesday’s news.

State Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, said that while the money was not as much as people wanted, it still represented a “step in the right direction.”

“I think it shows a commitment,” Watson, the vice chairman of the state Senate’s Economic Development and Tourism Committee, said in an interview. “This is more money than (the administration has) put in in the past. It is not ideal, but the federal system right now is not ideal. That’s part of the way things are in Washington right now.”

The Georgia Ports Authority did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

While the lion’s share of presidential budget proposals are considered nonstarters on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama’s request is incredibly important for individual government projects coveted by state officials because lawmakers can no longer earmark money for specific ventures in spending bills.

There is still a long way to go, however, before any government spending plans are finalized. Lawmakers will devote the next several months to scrubbing the president’s $4 trillion request and drawing up plans of their own. Any final agreement on funding levels for federal agencies including the corps is not expected to be finalized until after the November election.

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