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Trump budget holds $50 million for Savannah harbor deepening

The Port of Savannah was one of two big harbor deepening winners in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018, garnering more than $50 million of the $108 million the administration has proposed for harbor deepening. Georgia Ports Authority will share the total with allocation with the Port of Boston in what is close to a 50-50 split.

Although Congress has authorized some 15 port projects to deepen and widen shipping channels as larger container ships begin plying the nation’s waterways, Savannah and Boston were the only two to get funds for the upcoming year.

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, a much-delayed civil works initiative to deepen the Savannah River channel from 42 feet to 47 feet, is underway, with an estimated completion date of 2020. Officials at the Port of Boston hope to begin deepening later this year.

In addition to the funds specified in the federal construction budget, a number of ports, including Boston, received a boost from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ FY 2017 Work Plan budget, released late Wednesday. Georgia officials had hoped for additional monies from the Corps, but received none.

“While the increase for SHEP in the president’s budget is promising, this news is unfathomable,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter who, along with U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, has been championing the need for a deeper harbor at the nation’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing container port.

“The administration has stressed the importance of infrastructure projects, yet fails to support the deep draft navigation project with the highest benefit-to-cost ratio of 7.3 to 1. At this funding rate, the project will double the time it takes to complete and cost an additional $200 million. For each year it’s delayed, we lose out on $282 million in economic benefit,” Carter said.

“All said, this funding level will cost $1.4 billion in lost economic benefit. Every hour, every minute that this project is stalled, we’re losing money. All I can think is that it must be some kind of mistake. I am actively looking into this and will continue to fight to ensure SHEP is supported at the federal level.”

And while Trump’s request of $50 million for Savannah, the fourth-busiest U.S. container port, is 17 percent more than President Barack Obama secured in his last budget, it’s still only half of what Georgia officials said was needed to keep the $973 million project on schedule.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said in a statement he was “disappointed by the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers” to route some of the discretionary funds to Savannah. He made no mention of Trump’s budget request.

“Rest assured that I will continue fighting in Congress to secure sufficient funding for this worthy project to be completed without further delays,” Isakson said.

A long time coming

In the works since 1999, dredging finally began on Savannah’s deepening project in September of 2015 when Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. began work on the entrance channel, some 17 miles from Fort Pulaski into the Atlantic Ocean.

That work is now more than 60 percent complete, Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch told his board Monday. Most other phases of the project are moving along as well, although the excruciatingly slow pace, fueled by extensive studies, delays and lawsuits, has resulted in rising costs.

In April, the Corps of Engineers revised its estimate of total project costs from the $706 million cited in 2014 to $973 million.

Army Corps Savannah District spokesman Russell Wicke attributed the new numbers to increased dredging and construction costs, development of complex designs on unique features and a 24-month timeline extension. Off-setting the higher cost is an increase in the benefit-to-cost ratio, which has grown to $7.30 in benefits for every $1 spent on construction, Wicke said. The previous ratio was $5.50-to-$1.

Based on this increase, SHEP is now expected to yield a net benefit of $282 million a year to the American economy, up more than $100 million a year over the previous estimate of $174 million. That brings the total benefits to the nation over the course of 50 years to $14.1 billion, a 62-percent increase over the original 50-year estimate of $8.7 billion. “Project benefits come mostly from transportation cost savings,” Wicke said, adding that the deepening will allow larger, more efficient vessels to call on Savannah without tidal delays. “The fuel savings alone are immense,” he said.

Already here

Those larger vessels have already begun arriving at the Port of Savannah, although still tidally constrained and often light-loaded.

On May 12, the COSCO Development, the largest container ship ever to call on the U.S. East Coast, arrived at Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City Terminal, ushering in a new era of big ships that are expected to become the norm for the country’s fourth-largest container port. Capable of carrying more than 13,000 TEUs – or 20-foot equivalent units – the Development made history as the largest container ship to pass through the newly expanded locks of the Panama Canal.

Her fame is destined to be short-lived, however.

On Wednesday, less than a month after the Development made news, the OOCL France, with a total TEU capacity of nearly 14,000, transited the canal, bound for Norfolk, Savannah and Charleston.

That ship is expected to arrive here late next week.

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