By Tamar Hallerman and J. Scott Trubey
The Trump administration proposed sending more federal dollars to Georgia’s top economic development project in its new budget request to Congress. However, the proposal for the Savannah port's deepening project still falls far below boosters’ original ask of $100 million.
In its request for the 2018 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the Trump administration told Congress it would like to set aside some $50 million for ongoing dredging work to deepen the harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet. That’s a 17 percent increase above the amount that lawmakers and the Obama administration agreed to give the project last year, but half of what boosters say is necessary to keep the project on schedule.
Backers of the Savannah port framed the request as a good omen. Many gripe that the federal government has taken too long to fork over its now $640 million share of the project, after the state ponied up its $266 million in seed money several years ago.
“In a budget crafted with many spending reductions, it is extremely reassuring to see that this administration realizes how important this project is not only to our area, but to the entire nation,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, whose 1st congressional district includes the Savannah port.
“Now, I will work diligently with my colleagues to continue this momentum and fight for (the project) as budget discussions continue,” he added.
The venture has been in the works for years and has united politicians of all political stripes in Georgia, who frame it as a core economic development project that will bring jobs and money to the region in conjunction with the newly-expanded Panama Canal.
Earlier this month after a ceremony at the Savannah port to welcome the largest container ship to visit the East Coast, Gov. Nathan Deal affirmed his commitment to do “whatever is going to be necessary to complete this project.” He also said he expected the federal government to fulfill its promise to fund 75 percent of the harbor deepening project.
“We are going to continue to ask the federal government to live up to their 75 percent share,” Deal said. “It’s a cooperative effort and we’re going to keep it that way.”
A spokesman for the Savannah port was not immediately available for comment.
As is the case with all presidential budget requests, Congress is expected to substantially alter it in its own final product. But with individual projects such as the Savannah port, lawmakers tend not to tinker with the White House’s proposal so they don’t run aground of the six-year-old earmark ban.
With that said, there is some optimism among Georgia lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the project will be in line for extra money from the federal government thanks to a broader account in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's budget that's devoted to funding ongoing construction projects. There's also hope that more money could be in the pipeline should Congress and the administration move to accelerate an infrastructure package.
Trump's proposed funding increase is notable given that his administration proposed slimming the Army Corps' overall budget by more than 16 percent, a move that raised the ire of Democrats.
“Despite President Trump’s repeated promises to rebuild roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure, the budget proposal the administration released today is actually a net cut to infrastructure spending,” the office of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
Georgia's ports system accounts for some $40 billion in estimated economic impact across the state, and directly or indirectly touch about 400,000 jobs. The Savannah port is the nation's No. 4 container port by volume, and the ports authority said this week the system had its best-ever month of April by tonnage.
That came a month after the Army Corps announced expansion work at the port would cost taxpayers 38 percent more and take two years longer to complete than initially expected.
The channel deepening project is one of the largest infrastructure projects in state history. The project would deepen the river channel to 47 feet over a span of about 40 miles from the port to the Atlantic Ocean.
“We’re not only shovel-ready, we are dredge-ready,” Deal said May 12. “We have dredges in operation. We just need to finish it. I think we’re going to get great cooperation from the Corps of Engineers. They’ve been great partners, by the way, to getting to this point.”