Georgia lawmakers crossed several items off their D.C. to-do list in the two-year budget agreement President Donald Trump signed into law last week. But one of the delegation’s top federal priorities, securing ample funding for the Savannah port’s nearly $1 billion expansion project, won’t see clarity until Monday, when the White House unveils its proposal for the upcoming 2019 budget year.
Georgia representatives from both parties have spent months lobbying the Trump administration to devote $100 million to the deepening project in the upcoming budget cycle, which begins Oct. 1. They say that much is needed to keep ongoing dredging work on track and on budget.
“We recognize that in challenging fiscal times, careful decisions must be made in prioritizing where taxpayer dollars are invested,” all 16 members of the delegation wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget chief. “In the case of (the Savannah port), we respectively submit that we have a project that is fully underway, that will deliver proven benefits and has maximum matching support from the local sponsor.”
While Congress holds the federal purse strings and decides how agencies can spend their money, the earmark ban prohibits lawmakers from selecting specific projects to fund. That means the executive branch gets the ultimate decision-making authority, which is what makes the White House’s budget proposal so important.
Put another way, the number included in Monday’s request is more or less the funding level Congress will approve at the end of the day for Savannah.
Dredging work to deepen the Savannah harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet to make way for larger container ships is nearly halfway done, according to the port, operations that have been funded mainly with the $266 million initially forked over by the state.
The feds are supposed to cover the lion’s share of the project’s $973 million price tag, but the most the state has been able to get Washington to pony up in a single year has been $50 million. That came from Trump in his first budget proposal last spring, but that money has yet to be approved by Congress.
Georgia lawmakers warned Mulvaney that keeping Savannah funding flat at the 2018 proposed level of $50 million would delay the project’s completion by five years, cost an additional $56 million because of inflation and generate an “irretrievable, cumulative loss” of $1.4 billion in annual economic benefits.
Local officials are closely tracking Washington’s moves regarding the 2019 budget since the port plans to advertise and award its contract for inner harbor dredging this year and begin that work in fiscal 2019.
There is some cautious optimism that because the budget agreement cleared way for tens of billions in extra domestic spending in the 2019 budget year – including $20 billion in new infrastructure money – projects such as Savannah could see some additional dollars. Ditto for the infrastructure proposal Trump also plans to unveil Monday, although the political prospects for that $200 billion plan are dicier.