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March 28, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT
Savannah Harbor Deepening Project Needs More Federal Funding, Ports Authority Chief Says
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

Severe budget cuts in the federal portion of a $700 million plan to deepen the Savannah harbor challenges Georgia’s ability to take in the world’s largest cargo ships, the head of the Georgia Ports Authority said March 24.

Incoming Executive Director Griffith Lynch told local business leaders at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Member Economic Luncheon that President Obama’s 2017 budget allocates only $43 million a year instead of the $90 million to $100 million officials say is needed to finish the project in five years.

“We were very happy to hear we were the most important project in the president’s budget, but it was only half of what we needed,” Lynch said. “We needed about $90 million to $100 million a year to complete the project by the year 2020, 2021."

Curtis Foltz, who has led the agency for the past six years, is stepping down effective June 30.

Known as the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, the deepening project will dredge about 24 million cubic yards from the Savannah River and harbor area. At its current depth, the harbor can’t accommodate the largest containerships unless they are only partially loaded.

Lynch said about 11% of the channel has been completed based on the $266 million in state money allocated to the project.

“The federal government needs to make up almost $450 million,” he said. “And that’s a big struggle right now.”

The Georgia Ports Authority’s Savannah port is the nation’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing container terminal, while its Brunswick port is the nation’s second-busiest for import and export vehicles.

The ports have grown quickly in the past decade because of their reputation for efficient service. As an example, Lynch said truck drivers at New York ports must wait at minimum two hours to get serviced compared with less than one hour in Savannah.

“The only port that really provides exceptional service to customers has been recognized as Savannah,” Lynch said.

He said 2015 West Coast labor disputes that shut down ports in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, have prompted many foreign companies to export products to the United States through Georgia.

“There’s a lot of electronics companies, like LG, that have said, ‘OK, we don’t want this to happen again, so we’re going to increase our market share to Savannah,’ ” he said. “They’re doubling their business through Georgia this year, and that’s just one example of many.”

The Georgia Ports Authority also is working with the South Carolina Ports Authority on Jasper Ocean Terminal, a port 10 miles downriver from Savannah harbor on 1,500 acres of marshland in Jasper County, South Carolina.

The project is expected to relieve congestion from Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina, ports when they reach capacity in 10 to 15 years.