Obama Fast Tracks Savannah, Charleston Port Projects

Plans to dredge the harbors of Savannah and CharlestonS.C., are among seven nationally significant infrastructure plans to be fast tracked for final approval, the White House announced late July 18.

President Barack Obama set a November deadline for the federal government to issue all permits on the $652 million port-deepening project in Savannah. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended a plan to deepen the harbor from 42 to 47 feet in April and planned to issue its record of decision, the final approval for the project, by the end of the year.

Georgia has already set aside about $181 million for the project, with the federal government expected to pay the remaining 60 percent.

Pending the final decision by the federal government, construction on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project would begin next year. The five-foot deepening would allow larger, fully loaded cargo vessels expected to pass through an expanded Panama Canal by 2014 to dock in the port.

Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the corps’ Savannah branch, said all environmental studies are complete and that all recommendations have been sent to Washington. The record of decision rests in the hands of Army leaders there by Mr. Obama’s newly imposted November deadline.

“That’s the final step before we go to construction if that is the final decision,” Mr. Birdwell told GlobalAtlanta.

The corps determined in April that the project would provide $174 million in annual cost savings for shippers, potentially lowering prices on imported goods and making exports more competitive.

Mr. Obama’s order also bodes well for other ports in the Southeast, including those inJacksonvilleFla., Miami and Charleston, which is now scheduled for federal reviews to be completed by September 2015, nine months earlier than a timeline the Army Corps announced just last week.

Having begun just a few years ago, Charleston’s project lags Savannah’s, although officials estimate Charleston’s harbor deepening could be finished by the end of the decade.

The White House expects to announce more ambitious timelines on an additional 40 infrastructure projects in the coming months as part of Mr. Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, according to the news release.

The announcement has also received support from officials who traditionally oppose Mr. Obama, including Republican Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, as well as U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson from Georgia.

“I am glad to see that the administration recognizes the importance of the Port of Savannah,” Mr. Chambliss said. “This project has been in the works for more than a decade. It is time that the planning phase come to an end, and we move to construction.”

Both Mr. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have previously lobbied for federal funding of the project, which officials say will spur economic development and job creation across the state and region.

“To have the President of the United States acknowledge the importance of the Port of Savannah — its infrastructure improvement needs and the role it plays in the economic recovery of the Southeast — is significant,” said Curtis J. Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority in a statement.

As the fastest growing container port in the nation and the fourth largest port overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Savannah brought in more than 2.9 million containers, 8.7 percent of all U.S. container volume in 2011.

That growth can largely be attributed to expansion in container trade with Latin American countries and changes in the location of freight logistics hubs and distribution service centers, underscoring the importance of retail import distribution centers in the Savannah area, according to the BTS.

And with the deepening of the port, Savannah could continue to see double-digit growth rates, tapping out at around an estimated 6 million 20-foot equivalent unit containers by 2020 to 2023, said Page Siplon, executive director for the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics.

Mr. Siplon believes the deepening will provide more options for shippers, who can pass along cost savings to their customers.

“Cost is king,” Mr. Siplon said. “If it costs less to ship a product across the ocean by putting them in a larger ship, making the process more efficient, then companies will usually take that option.”

But he added that sometimes cost isn’t the only factor in the decision because reliability or speed to market may be more important.

A recent study sponsored by the Georgia Ports Authority and conducted by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth estimated that Georgia’s ports, including Brunswick and Savannah, contribute $66.9 billion to the state economy and support about one in 12 jobs.

For more information on the study, read this article.

 

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This story first appeared on GlobalAtlanta July 20, 2012.

 

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