The Georgia Republican told reporters during a visit to the bustling seaport that the harbor deepening is his top issue to discuss with President Barack Obama next week when the president joins Isakson and other GOP senators for dinner. They’ll be dining the same day Obama plans to release his proposed budget, which Georgia port officials hope will include money to start construction on the $652 million project.
“We’re still working diligently in Washington to close the deal,” Isakson said. “And we’re very, very close.”
Savannah and other East Coast ports are scrambling to deepen their shipping channels to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to being arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion. That work is expected to be finished in 2015.
Even before the Panama Canal project added urgency to the issue, the Georgia Ports Authority had been working since the 1990s to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River between its docks and the Atlantic Ocean. The federal government, which spent $41 million studying the project, gave final approval last October to deepen the harbor from 42 to 47 feet.
Now the major hurdle is money, though a federal lawsuit filed in South Carolina by environmental groups opposed to the project remains unresolved as well. The federal government is on the hook for 70 percent of the cost. Getting any sizable funding from Washington at a time when lawmakers are focused on painful budget cuts won’t be easy.
“You’re talking about a lot of money,” Isakson said. “And we’re having a lot of problems in Washington with money.”