SAVANNAH — The agency overseeing plans to deepen the river channel to the Port of Savannah announced Wednesday it will funnel an additional $2.5 million in federal funding toward pre-construction planning, which Georgia port officials said should help keep the projected on target for completion by 2016.
Opting not to play favorites between two shipping rivals, federal officials announced plans to give the same amount of money to Charleston, S.C., for studying whether a similar port expansion is feasible there.
Both Georgia and South Carolina are scrambling to deepen their harbors to accommodate supersize cargo ships expected along the East Coast after the Panama Canal completes a major expansion in 2014. The Savannah project is years ahead. South Carolina lawmakers are trying to stop deepening of the Savannah River, which the states share, saying the environmental damage would be unacceptable.
Regardless, port officials in both states put aside the bickering between the states Wednesday as they praised the latest infusion of cash from Washington, where the banning of earmark spending made port funding all but impossible to get last year.
"The credit for this important new funding goes to Georgia's delegation in Washington and other congressional leaders, whose efforts will move this project forward in a significant way," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Georgia got its money from $741 million in discretionary spending the Army Corps had available for navigation projects. South Carolina's funding came from a $460 million account Congress created late last year to allow unfunded port projects to get money based on merit.
Joyce McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, said the $2.5 million for Georgia — along with $588,000 that President Barack Obama had already requested — will go toward detailed engineering plans both for dredging the river and mitigating environmental damage.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican, said the funding "underscores the importance placed on this project by the Corps." Still, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss noted in statement that the amount was less than Georgia officials had hoped to receive.
It's a small portion of the estimated $600 million price tag for dredging 32 miles of the Savannah River between the port and the Atlantic Ocean from 42 to 48 feet in depth at low tide.
Port officials need about the federal government to pay about $360 million, with the rest coming from the state. Gov. Nathan Deal has called the harbor expansion a top economic development priority for Georgia.
The Army Corps plans to release final studies this spring that will allow it to seek permits to begin construction. Foltz said at the earliest the project could be completed in 2016.
But South Carolina lawmakers are trying to stop the Savannah harbor expansion. Both houses of its Legislature have unanimously approved a resolution that would void a water quality permit for the Savannah project granted last year by South Carolina's environmental agency. Gov. Nikki Haley, who has agreed to work with Deal, has vowed to veto the measure.
Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina ports, told his state's lawmakers Wednesday that Haley plans to meet with Deal and other port officials Friday in Augusta. Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, confirmed the meeting but could not immediately provide other details.