SAVANNAH — Emerging from a round of meetings in Washington, Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday he remains hopeful that Georgia can secure federal funding this year to start deepening the Port of Savannah's shipping channel — though not as much money as port officials had wanted.
The governor told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Washington that Georgia could probably get by with $70 million for the Savannah harbor project in the 2012 budget now being hashed out in Congress, provided that more money gets added next year. The Georgia Ports Authority had wanted $105 million to fund the first phase of dredging in the Savannah River next year.
"We don't think that it's over," Deal said of what's been a tough battle for port funding at a time when Congress is focused on slashing spending.
Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed were pushing the Savannah project Wednesday in meetings with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and with Georgia's congressional delegation. Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is racing for federal funding and permits to deepen its harbor to accommodate supersized container ships expected to arrive via an expanded Panama Canal by the end of 2014.
President Barack Obama allocated $600,000 for the Savannah harbor in his proposed budget earlier this year— enough money to keep it moving through a bottleneck of competing projects, but not nearly enough to start digging.
"We are hopeful that with our congressional delegation's help we can get that number up significantly higher," Deal said. "We think if we had $70 million, that's the figure we'd probably need to go forward on a timely schedule."
Deal said lawmakers also may have found a way to get the money without running afoul of Congress' ban on so-called "earmark" spending. Those line-item projects, inserted into budgets by individual lawmakers, are typically how port projects get funded.
But Republicans in Congress, under pressure from tea-party activists, have agreed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks. Obama has also pledged to reject them.
Deal said that's proven to be a "very practical problem" in getting funds for Savannah. However, he said, lawmakers might be able to get around the earmark ban if they can redirect money to the Savannah harbor from within the budgets proposed for agencies involved in the project — such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We don't know if that's possible," Deal said. "But it's something the congressional delegation said it would look at."
Ultimately it's expected to cost up to $600 million to dredge 6 feet of sand and mud along more than 30 miles of the Savannah River. The federal government would foot about two-thirds of the bill.
A few of the giant ships have already begun to arrive at the Savannah port via the Suez Canal. But without deeper water they can't come fully loaded and must wait until high tide to navigate the river.
Though Atlanta is nearly 250 miles from Savannah's port, Reed has become one of the most avid proponents of deepening the harbor. The Atlanta mayor calls it Georgia's most important economic development project.
"We need to push and it's better to push right now than to wait until in 2012," Reed said. "Good things happen when you compete and you don't quit."
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said sending Deal and Reed to lobby Washington together "clearly demonstrates the strong bipartisan support coming from all corners of Georgia for this critical harbor deepening project."