Atlanta mayor: Savannah harbor will get deepened

Russ Bynum, Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- Don't worry, the $652 million plan to deepen Savannah's busy shipping channel remains very much on President Barack Obama's radar, the mayor of Atlanta told coastal business and political leaders Thursday.

Kasim Reed addressed about 750 people at the annual luncheon of the Savannah Economic Development Authority just days after he spent several hours with Obama during the president's visit to Atlanta last weekend. Obama's proposed budget last month was a letdown for many in Savannah because it contained just $1.28 million for the harbor deepening — tens of millions of dollars less than Georgia officials had hoped to see.

"I know the recent budget appropriation concerns you all," Reed said. "I want to speak directly to that in a candid way. Don't be concerned about it a bit."

With Georgia's top elected offices now dominated by Republicans, Reed has stepped in as sort of a Democratic point man working to help sell the Savannah harbor expansion to the White House. Reed said he planned to raise the project with the president Sunday, but Obama brought it up himself during remarks at a Democratic fundraiser held after his graduation speech at Morehouse College.

"Let me tell you all what's so important — I didn't have to talk to him about it," Reed told his Savannah audience. "When he talked about ports that needed to be deepened in the United States on his own, he referenced the Port of Savannah."

Like other East Coast ports, Savannah has been racing to deepen its shipping channel to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal completes a major expansion in 2015. The project received final authorization from the federal government last year. But funding from Washington has been tough to get with Congress and the White House focused on budget cuts and deficit reduction.

The Georgia Ports Authority wants to see dredging on the Savannah River begin by the end of this year. Gov. Nathan Deal has made the port expansion a priority and Georgia lawmakers have already approved $231 million in state funding for the project.

Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said Thursday the target for completing the project — which would dredge 5 feet of sand and mud from more than 30 miles of the river — remains late 2016 or early 2017. He said the Savannah harbor should be better positioned to receive substantial federal dollars next year.

"Everyone's galvanized on a significant play in the 2015 budget," said Foltz, who acknowledged that "probably nothing is happening as quickly as we'd like it to in Washington."

Congress authorized the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999. And Reed noted the project has made rapid progress recently despite the funding issues.

Last year, Obama named Savannah among five U.S. ports the president singled out for expedited harbor expansions. Then the federal government issued its final permit for the project last fall. And the Senate voted last week to remove a spending cap of $459 million placed on the Savannah project in 1999 — a bureaucratic obstacle that still needs approval by the House.

"We're moving in the right direction and I know the president is aware of the importance of the Savannah port," Reed told reporters after his speech, saying the project has made more progress in the last three years than in the entire decade that came before. "I mean, I'd like for folks to give us a little slack."