Savannah Port Deepening Takes Step Forward With Water Bill's Passage

May 22, 2014

The Savannah Port deepening is one step closer to authorization after the U.S. Senate Thursday overwhelmingly passed a compromise version of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.

Among the 34 projects green-lighted with its passage, the $12.3 billion bipartisan bill authorizes up to $492 million in necessary federal funds for the Savannah port deepening, which has been 16 years in the works.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, outgoing Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss called the bill’s passage "crucial."

“Passage of this bill with the enhanced authorization it contains for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project will be the culmination of years of work by the state of Georgia, and project stakeholders and my entire time in the Georgia congressional delegation,” Chambliss said.

The bill allows for the Army Corps of Engineers to strike an agreement with the Savannah Port Authority to begin construction on the estimated $706 million project. Proponents for years have said the deepening is necessary to accommodate larger cargo ships that will eventually pass through the soon-to-be expanded Panama Canal.

Earlier this week the House overwhelmingly approved the legislation, a compromise version of separate bills that passed in the House and Senate last year.

With the Senate’s 91-7 passage Thursday, the bill now heads to President Barack Obama’s desk.

Chambliss called on the president to sign the bill soon.

“Now that we have completed our work, it is imperative that the administration carry through with its commitments,” Chambliss said.

National and state lawmakers were sent reeling earlier this year when Obama’s budget proposal didn’t include construction funding for the port deepening.

The president’s Office of Management and Budget argued projected spending for the project had far outpaced what had been approved by lawmakers when the deepening was first approved in 1999.

The office said new spending authorization included in the water bill was needed before the project could move forward, a statement the Georgia congressional delegation disputed in a letter to OMB Director Sylvia Burwell.

Georgia’s other GOP senator, Johnny Isakson, earlier this month said he’d didn’t want Burwell confirmed as head of the Health and Human Service Department until the port project moved forward.

Speaking before the water bill was taken up in the House Tuesday, Isakson changed his tone, applauding Burwell for her help in recent weeks.

“Sylvia Burwell at OMB has been a lifesaver for us on the Savannah port project, and I appreciate her cooperation and her help,” he said.

In a statement, Gov. Nathan Deal also applauded the bill’s passage.

“This landmark legislation will update an outdated spending cap that was put on the Savannah Harbor deepening project more than a decade ago, eliminating the last legislative hurdle and allowing us to use the money we have set aside to begin construction,” Deal said. “This project is vitally important for economic development and job creation not only in the Southeast, but nationally as well.”

In the same statement, Georgia ports director Curtis Foltz called the bill a "critical milestone," one that will accelerate the use of more than $266 million in funds set aside by the state. 

Foltz said he expects to sign an agreement with the Corps in the next 90 days.