Curtis Foltz, the state agency’s executive director, said port officials expect the best they can get in the budget now before Congress is $600,000 included by President Barack Obama. That’s enough to keep the harbor expansion on Washington’s radar, but far less than the $105 million that Georgia had been lobbying to get in hopes of starting construction as soon as the project gets final federal approval, expected next year.
“That’s all that’s needed right now,” Foltz said of the smaller sum. “The big federal money will come into play once the project is approved.”
The budget crunch in Washington and emphasis on cutting spending this year has made it nearly impossible to get much money for projects like the Savannah harbor deepening, which are typically funded as so-called “earmarks” that lawmakers have sworn off in Congress.
The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing its final report on plans to scoop 6 feet of mud and sand from the river bottom along 30 miles of the Savannah River in order to give supersized cargo ships access to Savannah’s port, the fourth-busiest U.S. container port.
Speaking to reporters after his annual State of the Ports speech in Savannah, Foltz said the Savannah expansion will need to start seeing big checks from Washington in the fiscal 2013 cycle that starts next fall. That way, if the project gets federal approval by mid-2012, construction could begin a few months thereafter.
“It’s so critical that in the fiscal 2013 budget we have what I would consider serious federal money,” Foltz said. “The federal government understands the economic impacts of the port. There’s not another port that this is more important to.”
Ports up and down the East Coast are looking for millions in federal dollars to deepen their harbors in anticipation of giant cargo ships expected through the Panama Canal after it finishes a major expansion in 2014. Only the port at Norfolk, Va., now has water deep enough for unrestricted passage of those vessels, though a deepening project is under way at the Port of New York/ New Jersey.
In his speech, Foltz highlighted new numbers from the U.S. Department of Commerce to make his case that Savannah’s port deserves funding more than any other.
The agency recently reported that Savannah in fiscal 2011 exported more containerized cargo by weight — 6.84 million tons — than any U.S. seaport but Los Angeles.
That bolsters another statistic the Georgia Ports Authority has been trumpeting as it has lobbied for harbor deepening funds: that exports make up 53 percent of the cargo moving through Savannah.
Port officials say the harbor deepening is key to continued expansion of Savannah’s port business, which helps the U.S. economy by shipping more American goods overseas.
“It passes the test of what you would do to create a stronger economy and create jobs,” said Alec Poitevint, the port authority chairman.
While Savannah’s harbor expansion won’t be done before the Panama Canal expansion in two years, Foltz has insisted the port won’t lose business as long as shippers can see the project is under way.
“Our customers will be patient,” Foltz said. “But their patience won’t last forever.”