SAVANNAH — Georgia's port chief told a senior U.S. trade official Monday he supports the Obama administration's push to expand free trade, but he insisted the Port of Savannah needs a $600 million deepening of its shipping channel to fully reap the benefits.
U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis visited Savannah, home of the nation's fourth busiest container port, to promote passage of new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that President Barack Obama says will create jobs by boosting U.S. exports.
The Georgia Ports Authority's top officials used that meeting as another chance to push Washington to fund the deepening of the Savannah River so that dredging might start next year. Like other East Coast ports, Savannah wants to deepen its harbor to accommodate supersized cargo ships that are expected to begin using an expanded Panama Canal in 2014. Getting money has been tough amid Washington's budget-slashing mindset.
"We're the shallowest major port in the world today," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of Georgia's ports. "Unless we can provide a safer and better passage on our river, shippers are going to go elsewhere."
Foltz said Savannah's trade with South Korea is a prime example of the need for deeper water.
Savannah's port projects it will export 73,000 containers — with goods ranging from poultry to kaolin clay — to South Korea this year via the Panama Canal. But the river channel's depth of 42 feet means about two-thirds of ships loaded with exports can't carry a full load. And much larger ships will be using the canal in about three years.
"Absent of the deepening, these exporters don't have the access to the global market" that they need, Foltz said.
Marantis said he was impressed with Savannah explosive growth, an average of 11.5 percent per year over the past decade. The Port of Savannah handled the equivalent of 2.9 million 20-foot containers in fiscal 2011. It first surpassed 1 million containers in 2001.
Asked if Washington might find funding — port officials have said they hope to secure $105 million this year — Marantis stopped short of endorsing the deepening project but said, "I think we're looking at that very closely."
"I think the opportunities that exist for Savannah, particularly with respect to the Panama Canal as it's expanded, are real and present real meaningful opportunities for the local economy," Marantis said.
Georgia port officials want federal funding in hand next year so dredging can begin soon after the project gets final government approval, which could come as early as next spring.