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Georgia legislator doubts Panama Canal's completion schedule

ATLANTA — A key state legislator announced misgivings Wednesday about the completion date of construction to widen the Panama Canal, saying Georgia officials could still finish deepening the Savannah River shipping channel by the time larger freighters begin transiting the canal. Georgia officials have been in a race with the Panama Canal Authority to complete their projects next year, the centennial of “The Big Ditch” that connects the Pacific Ocean and Asian countries to the Atlantic Ocean. Both groups are behind their original timetables. The expanded canal will accommodate freighters with twice the size and carrying capacity of current ships. The Georgia Ports Authority wants to deepen the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet to be able to handle the larger ships.If deepening isn’t completed in time, state and port officials fear shippers will take their business to other East Coast ports. Work on the river is scheduled to begin in the second half of this year with the finish in mid-2016, assuming Congress appropriates its share of the estimated $625 million project. That would be roughly a year after the wider canal is supposed to open, according to the latest schedule. State Rep. Jay Roberts, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said a tour for a multistate delegation of legislators he led recently left him optimistic about catching up to the Panamanians. “I actually think that they’re not going to be on schedule. They want to tell you they are, but behind closed doors, there’s some discussion that they may be running a little behind,” said Roberts, R-Ocilla. “That may help us.” His comments came as Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz outlined his budget request for the next fiscal year before a joint meeting of the state House and Senate appropriations committees where Roberts is a member. Foltz didn’t respond. The Panama Canal Authority issued a statement Wednesday detailing progress in the expansion project. Construction of new locks are 37 percent complete, said Canal Administrator Jorge L. Quijano. “We estimate based on the progress that we can begin commercial transits mid-2015,” he said. Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, questioned Foltz about the depth of the river. “If this is a 14-year cycle, do we need to be thinking further down the road?” Cheokas asked. Foltz said with ships continuing to get bigger, he would have preferred to go beyond the depth the federal government approved for the deepening. “I wish we were going to 50 feet. I wish we were going to 55 feet. Deeper in our world is better,” he said.