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Savannah port officials watching transportation debate in legislature
James McCurry
James McCurry Jr., senior director of administration and governmental affairs with the Georgia Ports Authority in Savannah

Port of Savannah officials have their hands full with an ambitious deepening project, but they’re also watching how the transportation funding debate plays out in the Georgia General Assembly.

Communities pushing industrial sites for economic development might lose out if they don’t have adequate road networks “to get to those primary arteries in and out of our ports,” said James McCurry Jr., government affairs director for the Georgia Ports Authority.

“It’s the roads in between and the mix in commercial and commuter traffic where those investments in roadways are so important,” he said. “That’s (the case) throughout the state and not just at the Port of Savannah or Port of Brunswick.”

McCurry, who was visiting in Gainesville on Thursday, didn’t offer any particular suggestions for how Georgia should address transportation, which is expected to be a key issue this session.

“Georgia has had a reputation of being ahead of the curve in terms of infrastructure,” he said in an interview before addressing the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

“Now is just another time (legislators) have got to look at how to have the capital to continue to invest and stay ahead of that curve. If we don’t, we will (have) a problem.”

For now, the port isn’t seeing the level of congestion as other ports in the country are “because of Georgia’s foresight of investment in infrastructure,” McCurry said.

Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers, who began the session Jan. 12, “have a lot of things they’re sorting through right now, and I’m confident Georgia will continue to be in a leadership position there,” he said.

“We have an infrastructure almost in place to give four-lane, limited access to the port from two interstates,” said Jim Walters, a Gainesville businessman and chairman of the authority’s board of directors. “And we’re the only port on the East Coast that has two railheads, so it’s a very accessible port.”

McCurry added: “We’re uniquely well positioned to not only continue to do the robust business we’re doing now but to grow. The weak spot comes with the deepening — that’s why that project is so critical.”

Georgia has set aside $266 million for deepening the Savannah Harbor from 42 to 47 feet, a move that’s expected to accommodate an increase in the number of supersized container vessels from the Panama Canal after its expansion.

Another $440 million would come from the federal government, and ports officials are eagerly awaiting President Barack Obama’s budget.

“That’s when we anticipate seeing the first significant federal funding recommendation,” McCurry said. “That will be something we will hope to see on an annual basis until the project is fully funded.”

Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 in June, authorizing construction of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

Construction is underway, with the project expected to take about four years to complete.

The project is key for Hall County and North Georgia, as poultry is a key export.

“They’ve done a lot of work at the Savannah port to accommodate that,” Walters said. “We added a lot of refrigerated container racks (where chicken) can be stored on the grounds for future shipment.”

The Panama Canal is being eyed for 2016 completion, or a couple years or so before the harbor is deepened. In the meantime, “we’re working with our customers to ... kind of shoehorn those larger ships in,” McCurry said.

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