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Federal water bill encourages waste
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Much has been said in response to recent news from Washington about a bill supposedly giving the go-ahead on Savannah’s harbor deepening project. Misleading statements about the project, both before this news and afterwards, need to be clarified and corrected.
The Congressional action in question, the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), authorizes $16 billion in federal funding for water projects, making a pretense of responsible restraint, yet weakening controls that would help prevent wasteful spending. Furthermore, authorizing funds under WRRDA provides no guarantee that spending will be appropriated by Congress.
Nationally, projects authorized — including Savannah’s harbor deepening — are expected to entail at least an additional $10 billion in state and local spending. If federal funds fall short, more local money will be needed.
The last WRRDA bill, passed in 2007, required independent review of any project over $40 million to eliminate unworthy projects. In the 2014 version, this threshold is raised to $200 million, meaning that fewer projects will be scrutinized, raising chances of more tax dollars being squandered. And – taxpayers take note – seven years later, some of the projects authorized by WRRDA 2007 remain in limbo because funds still have not been appropriated by Congress.
Thus, Georgia’s port-deepening enthusiasts may be celebrating WRRDA prematurely, because funds authorized clearly are NOT funds appropriated. Before removing a single scoop of channel-bottom, Georgians had better be sure of the deal they are being obligated to. It must not be assumed that the Savannah project, which is now estimated at over $700 million, will receive federal funding anytime soon, if ever.
For that reason, the General Assembly must consider whether the state wants to commit to funding the entire project if Congress fails to deliver. Unless such spending is approved by a majority of state legislators, the project should not be started.
But even more fundamentally, the U.S. remains the only major nation lacking a port development plan or strategy. This conspicuous negligence has only one plausible explanation: having such a plan would require objective criteria to establish national priorities for spending public funds on port projects. Without a national port development plan, our wasteful piecemeal process can continue, allowing lavish spending on inadequately justified projects – thereby accommodating the much-debated-but-never -reformed political game of spreading tax dollars around to satisfy special interests.
As I’ve previously explained, Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is some 38 miles upriver and – revealingly – the only port allegedly vying for “world-class” mega-ship status worldwide that isn’t close to the ocean, immediately accessible to major shipping channels. The enormous budget for trying to control the project’s environmental risks is further evidence of that problem.
In highly competitive global trade, the only justification for expensive harbor deepening is enhancing the function of mega-ship ‘hubs,’ essential to trans-shipping. Upriver locations like Savannah’s port are simply not capable of operating as hubs.
For Americans to come to grips with the dual goals of prudent national economic development and wise government spending, we must move beyond state-by-state appeasement of irrational, parochial political demands.

Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, This appeared earlier in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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