SAVANNAH — Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he would have Georgia taxpayers pay a heftier portion of the $653 million tab to deepen the Savannah harbor rather than delay the project if the federal government hasn’t funded its share once it’s time to start dredging.
Deal was at the Port of Savannah and said he firmly believes Washington should honor its commitment to cover 60 percent of the project. But with federal dollars still tight and time running out before supersized cargo ships can start using an expanded Panama Canal, the governor said he’s willing do what’s necessary to begin deepening the Savannah River as soon as possible.
Asked what would happen if the president and Congress fail to find dredging money for the harbor soon, Deal said: “We’ll spend our money.”
“We hope we don’t get to that point,” Deal said. “But it may be one of those things that, if that becomes necessary, we begin the project and hopefully get (federal) funding after the fact to reimburse the state.”
Savannah and other East Coast ports are racing to deepen their harbors in anticipation of mammoth ships arriving via Panama once its canal expansion is finished in 2014.
Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers issued its final report calling for dredging 5 feet from the bottom of the Savannah harbor for a depth of 47 feet. The Georgia Ports Authority is hoping to win final approval later this year. Even on that timetable, and ignoring court challenges pending in neighboring South Carolina that could delay or halt the project, the deepening wouldn’t be finished until 2016.
Georgia port officials say if dredging isn’t under way by the time the expanded Panama Canal opens, the state risks losing shipping business to competitors with deeper water. Savannah now has the fourth busiest container port in the U.S.
“We’re not going to let anything slow us down because time is of the essence,” Deal said. “We need to make it as close to that time frame as possible.”
Deal stopped in Savannah during a victory lap around the state to tout his successes during the legislative session that ended last month. He was signing a state budget that includes an additional $47 million for the harbor deepening, bringing the total state funding approved for the project to $181 million.
Some lawmakers in South Carolina, which is seeking to deepen the harbor of neighboring port competitor Charleston, want to go ahead and authorize additional state borrowing to cover the federal portion of their project should Washington come up short.
Before his remarks Tuesday, Deal had said the federal government needed to come up with its share — about $392 million total.
President Barack Obama’s recent proposed budget included $588,000 for the Savannah harbor, and the Army Corps found another $2.5 million for the project. But that’s far from the amount needed to begin dredging.
The governor said he’s still not ready to ask Georgia taxpayers to foot Washington’s portion of the bill.
“I’m not willing to let the federal government off the hook yet,” said Deal, who served in Congress when the 60-40 cost-sharing agreement for the harbor deepening was struck in the late 1990s. “We are expecting them to live up to that. Obviously, if they do not, then we will accommodate accordingly.”