Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood threw his support behind the Port of Savannah’s deepening project and pledged to help Georgia find the needed funding.
"It has to happen," LaHood said on Tuesday of the $600 million project. "We'll figure out how to get the federal dollars to make this project happen," LaHood told Georgia officials and reporters as he toured the port.
LaHood promised to convene a meeting of stakeholders in Washington next month to help find funding for the port expansion, which has had a tough time securing money from a Congress focused on trimming the budget deficit.
Savannah, the fourth largest U.S. container port, and its competitors on the East Coast are scrambling for federal funding and permits to deepen their harbors to accommodate supersized cargo ships. The post-Panamax ships are expected to arrive after the canal completes a major expansion in 2014.
The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is more expensive than many other port projects because it involves dredging the river channel for 32.5 miles from the port out into the ocean from 42 feet to 47 or 48 feet. The port has also agreed to extensive environmental mitigation in exchange for winning support from South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The port's explosive growth over the past decade has continued despite the struggling economy. It's also become a major exporter of American goods heading overseas. In the past fiscal year, Savannah exported 6.84 million tons of containerized cargo -- more than any U.S. seaport but Los Angeles.
"The expansion of this port is a job creator," LaHood said. "It fits the president's agenda of putting people back to work."
Hoping to win final federal permits to start dredging the Savannah River by mid-2012, Georgia has set aside $134 million for the harbor expansion and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal says he'll ask for $47 million more next year. Still, the state is counting on the federal government to foot 60 percent of the total bill.
Obama allocated $600,000 for the Savannah project in his proposed budget this year. That's not much compared to the $360 million in federal funds that are needed. Deal said he was happy to hear LaHood say he would meet next month with the agencies involved and Georgia's congressional delegation to look for more money.
"I don't pull out checks," LaHood said. "What I do is convene meetings of all the stakeholders, of all the colleagues who work in President Obama's administration and say `this is a priority.'"