Georgia will begin spending $231 million in state funds set aside for the harbor expansion to buy land for wetlands mitigation and fund other pieces of the $652 million project that don't require money or approval from Washington, Deal said in his letter to Army Secretary John McHugh.
"Georgia is prepared to provide and will provide state funding to accelerate the construction process by all lawful means," said the governor's letter, dated March 11. A copy was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://bit.ly/Oox6rD).
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling to deepen its busy shipping channel to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to arrive after the Panama Canal completes a major expansion in 2015. Georgia officials are pushing hard to start dredging this year along the 30-mile channel of the Savannah River that connects the Port of Savannah to the Atlantic Ocean.
Deal and Georgia's congressional delegation were stunned last week when the Obama administration failed to include construction funding for the Savannah project in the president's proposed 2015 budget. The White House also says Georgia won't be allowed to start digging using its own money until a stalled water-projects bill containing updated authorizing language for the Savannah harbor clears Congress.
The governor wrote to McHugh because he's the top cabinet official over the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the harbor expansion. Deal reiterated what Georgia officials have been saying for the past week — that language inserted into the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress and the president in January allows the Army Corps to legally ignore an outdated spending cap placed on the Savannah project in 1999. The water-projects bill before Congress would raise that limit by $193 million to match current cost estimates.
The White House so far has refused to budge. The federal government gave its final permission to the project in October 2012, but it's been at a near standstill since then.
"We cannot wait any longer to move this important and nationally significant project out of regulatory purgatory," Deal said in his letter.
President Barack Obama has mentioned the need for deeper harbors at U.S. ports — naming Savannah; Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., specifically — during speeches and interviews in the past year. Vice President Joe Biden visited the docks at the Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port, last September and promised the harbor deepening would get done "come hell or high water."
The White House last week said it can't let construction begin without renewed authorization language in the water-projects bill before Congress.
"This is not a budget problem," the White House said, "this is an authorization problem."
Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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