SAVANNAH — President Donald Trump on Monday requested a $49 million installment toward deepening the busy shipping channel to the Port of Savannah, once asking for roughly half the federal money Georgia officials say the project needs to avoid construction delays.
The $973 million project has been underway for more than two years and dredging of the 18-mile outer harbor where the Savannah River meets the Atlantic Ocean is nearly complete. Nearing the halfway mark, the Georgia Ports Authority says the harbor expansion needs about $100 million in funding per year to remain on schedule.
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is racing for deeper water to accommodate larger cargo ships arriving through the expanded Panama Canal. Though the big ships can’t carry full loads at low tides, they are already doing business at the Port of Savannah, where cargo volumes topped 4 million container units for the first time last year.
Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said Monday that he hopes the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency overseeing the harbor expansion, will find additional funding in its discretionary budget later this year. And he noted Gov. Nathan Deal has asked Georgia lawmakers for another $35 million in state money for the project.
“Without this additional $35 million that Gov. Deal has put in his budget, we would definitely have a problem,” Lynch said. “I’m hoping we can get the money we need for this year. It’s still $100 million, so we’re still short. But the project continues to progress and we’re feeling confident.”
Trump’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year that starts in October seeks slightly less for the Savannah harbor expansion than the president’s recommendation of $50 million a year ago. The exact amount the project will receive for the current 2018 fiscal year remains uncertain. Congress still has to work out the details after reaching a budget deal last week.
Securing dollars from Washington has proven as difficult under Trump as it was under President Barack Obama. An end to so-called earmark spending that began in the Obama years prevents lawmakers from adding pet projects to federal budgets. That gives the president’s spending requests for specific projects such as the harbor expansion more weight.
The Port of Savannah is the nation’s fourth-busiest container port. If work continues on schedule, the Savannah harbor expansion is expected to be finished in 2022. Georgia has already paid $266 million, most of its share from state taxpayers.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican whose district includes Savannah, said he’s also pushing to get some of the $20 billion for infrastructure projects included in the budget deal last week routed to the Savannah harbor.
Carter also noted that Trump requested more money for Savannah than for any other U.S. port expansion.
“When you look at it in the sense of priorities, that rates us very high,” Carter said. “So that speaks volumes."