Georgia officials sounded both stunned and defiant after the Obama administration’s new budget failed to recommend funding to start the $652 million deepening of Savannah’s busy shipping channel, a project Vice President Joe Biden pledged just six months ago would get done “come hell or high water.”
Gov. Nathan Deal vowed to jumpstart the expansion of the river channel cargo ships use to reach the Port of Savannah without financial help from Washington, using $231 million the state already has set aside for its share of the project. Deal seized on Biden’s much-quoted “hell or high water” comment to retort: “It’s more accurate to say the administration is going to put us through the former to get to the latter.”
Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Port Authority, which is not as far along in its quest for a deeper harbor, will include federal money from the administration to pay for the bulk of preconstruction engineering and design on a project to deepen the 40-foot St. Johns River shipping channel to 47 feet — money the authority had said it was prepared to front to keep the ambitious plan on track.
“This funding will allow the port to take the next step in preparing for the harbor’s dredging project,” U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said in a statement. “Once again, President Obama’s administration has made North Florida a top priority with respect to transportation funding.”
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah and Jacksonville are scrambling to deepen their harbors to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion as early as next year.
Georgia officials are pushing hard to get construction started this year and were looking to Obama to seek significant funding for the project after the president touted the need for deeper water at U.S. ports during public appearances last year.
But the president’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal released Tuesday contained just $1.52 million for the Savannah harbor, and that small amount was designated for preconstruction engineering and design. Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss issued a joint statement saying they were “deeply disappointed and frustrated” and blamed the Obama administration for holding up a project worth thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue.
The White House said Tuesday the Savannah harbor deepening was among many projects being held up because Congress hasn’t finalized a water-projects bill containing provisions needed to move them forward. Georgia lawmakers insist language inserted into the recently passed omnibus spending bill allows the Savannah project to bypass waiting for the water-projects measure.
Port and city officials in Jacksonville are hoping the St. Johns River deepening project gains congressional authorization in the water-projects bill, making it eligible for federal funding to pay part of the nearly $700 million cost.
The bill currently does not contain language authorizing that project, though Jacksonville’s U.S. Reps. Brown and Ander Crenshaw, as well as local officials, have lobbied intensely for its inclusion in the final version of the legislation.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $2.25 million to pay for preconstruction engineering and design on the project. In addition, Obama’s 2015 budget includes another $3.15 million for that work. That will help keep the deepening project moving forward as locals wait for the outcome of the water-projects bill.
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