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Portside: Carter invites colleague with clout to visit port

There’s a saying that claims “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Congressman Buddy Carter, R-Ga., is hoping that’s the case today when he gives his friend and House colleague Garret Graves a tour of Georgia Ports Authority’s sprawling terminal facilities.

Graves, a Louisiana Republican, could be a formidable ally in Georgia’s urgent push to get the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project across the finish line.

Named Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment in January, Graves oversees water resources development and regulatory programs administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies. As such, he is expected to have a major say in shaping the potential trillion-dollar infrastructure package President Donald Trump is advocating.

It’s an interesting new role for the congressman from Baton Rouge – a longtime critic of the Corps and its policies who asserts the agency is slow and inefficient, obsessed with minute regulations and costing the country far too much in lost economic opportunities.

Now that he is essentially the agency’s boss, Graves sees major changes on the horizon.

“As a nation, we have under-invested in infrastructure over many years and now we’re paying the price,” he said in an interview this week. “We’re paying the price in terms of the competitiveness and efficiency of our economy and creating a drag on job growth.”

A perfect example, he said, is the trend of larger ships coming through an enlarged Panama Canal.

“Many other countries have planned and adjusted to accommodate these larger, deeper vessels with much greater carrying capacity,” Graves said. “But the United States, to a large degree, has not properly prepared or invested for what is now a major reality. As a result, these large Neopanamax ships must come into many of our ports, including Savannah, at less than capacity.”

That means the country is missing opportunities for additional economic activity and job growth, he said.

“That’s not good for our small businesses, for U.S. companies and, of course, our work force,” Graves said.

Then there is the impact on everyday people.

“Anytime we pay more for shipping because we’re not maximizing the efficiency of the vessel, it’s the consumer who ends up absorbing those higher costs,” he said.

Although today’s visit will be his first to GPA, Graves is familiar with the port.

“My office in Washington is literally next door to Buddy’s office. At least every other day, I get an earful about Savannah’s deepening project,” he said, laughing.

But Graves is quick to point out that the amount of time it’s taken to get the Savannah River channel deepened is no laughing matter.

“I believe there have been various economic studies over the years that suggest this project will return between $5 and $7 for every $1 invested,” he said. “But the reality is you don’t see those benefits until the project is completed.”

As his committee moves forward in putting an infrastructure package together for the nation, a complementary initiative will look at more efficient project development and delivery, Graves said.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to be in year 21 on an important project like this,” he said. “And it still has years to go.”

For his part, Carter is excited to give his colleague an up-close look at the country’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing port.

“When it comes to the economic importance of our nation’s ports, Garret gets it,” Carter said. “I’m excited to for him to see our port first-hand. We hope to show him its critical role as an economic engine, not just for Georgia but for the entire Southeast and beyond.”

So far, the two Congressmen appear to be on the same page.

“When you have projects that are expected to deliver this type of return on investment for taxpayers that will improve the health of our economy and grow jobs, it’s important to have a project development and delivery process that corresponds to the urgency and return on investment of each project,” Graves said.

“The Panama Canal was completely renovated in a matter of years, yet it’s taking us decades to get some of these really strategically important projects across the United States finished.

“We can – and we will – do better.”

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Mary Carr Mayle is a freelance business writer. Her PortSide column appears every other week. She can be reached at marycmayle@comcast.net.

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