It sounded like total commitment from the White House for the work that would allow the harbor to accommodate larger ships from the expanding Panama Canal and not risk losing business to rivals. The $652 million project, the single most important one to Georgia’s economy at present, has produced rare bipartisanship with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed and the state’s congressional delegation backing the work.
“There is no economic development effort more important to this region and this state,” Reed has said. Indeed, a study showed the $9.5 billion in cargo that moved between the Savannah and Brunswick harbors in fiscal 2011 alone supported nearly 170,000 jobs in this area. The Port of Savannah is the fourth busiest in the nation, and the Garden City Terminal ranks first among single container facilities with 12 percent of the nation’s containerized exports handled there.
President Obama gave what sounded like an endorsement last August in an appearance on the “Tonight Show,” declaring that Savannah, Charleston and Jacksonville needed deeper harbors to handle larger ships going through the Panama Canal. Obama said, “If we don’t do that, these ships are going to go someplace else and we’ll lose jobs.”
But his apparent support and Biden’s apparent total commitment evaporated Tuesday with the release of Obama’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget. It contained no construction funds for the Savannah harbor project, only a piddling $1.52 million for further preparation.
Deal said the state would go ahead, using more than $231 million set aside for its 40 percent share — but the White House nixed any work until Congress approves a water projects bill that’s gone nowhere since October. “This is an authorization problem,” the White House said.
Not so, replied Georgia’s U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss in a joint statement. They said the appropriations bill passed in January “gave clear direction to the administration to begin construction” on the project and “to request the necessary funding.” The senators said, “It is baffling to see this administration choose to ignore a statute passed just six weeks ago that cleared all remaining obstructions to moving forward with the project.”
Why? U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) said, “I can’t imagine what’s going on with the administration except for some kind of politics.” What else? There’s speculation it’s aimed at hurting Georgia Republicans in this election year. But consider this: the Democrat-controlled Senate version of the stalled water projects bill was for $12 billion versus the House’s $8.2 billion bill. Is the Savannah project leverage for the Democrats?
Whatever the motive, it puts the Savannah Harbor project still further behind. It’s a shame, as in “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”