A deeper river at last?

THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S OPINION

It’s your turn, Mr. President. Now that Congress has given long-in-coming approval to a bill authorizing $706 million for deepening 41 miles of river, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is closer than ever to a done deal.
The next big step is a presidential signature. And, given that gaining final, final, final approval for the port work has taken two decades, we’d urge President Barack Obama to sign the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) as quickly as he can find an empty table and pen.
If the POTUS has any lingering doubts, he should consult Vice President Joe Biden, who famously vowed last year to get Savannah done “come hell or high water.” We’re sure the ever-expressive Biden can make a persuasive case for the strategic deepening of the Savannah River.
The numbers around the project should do a better job of convincing skeptics than political rhetoric ever could. The University of Georgia says that Savannah’s harbor and a sister port in Brunswick benefit Georgia’s economy by an estimated $39 billion a year. And roughly 100,000 jobs in metro Atlanta are likewise said to be reliant on the flow of trade in and out of the state’s ports.
So congressional approval of the bill authorizing funding for this and other work around the U.S. is great news for Georgia and its work force.
Once Obama inks the legislation, Army Corps of Engineers officials will need to give their final sign-off. This should be only a formality since previous Corps studies have made a persuasive case for the expansion. Then state and federal officials will decide how costs will be split for the project. Georgia has managed to squirrel away $266 million toward its share of the price, and construction will begin using that money. It’s worth noting that the water act increased the project cost by about $54 million to account for price rises since the project was last authorized.
Dredging of the river could begin in December, starting on a stretch of channel extending some 15 miles into the Atlantic ocean from the river’s mouth. The other 26 miles of river won’t be deepened until significant environmental issues are addressed.
Those concerns are no small matter, and it is fitting that more than half of the pricetag for the expansion is slated to be spent on environmental mitigation work, including a system to provide oxygen to fish in the Savannah River. Corps officials say the technology planned has been successfully used elsewhere and will work here. Harbor supporters should know that environmentalists and others will be watching and will hold them to their promises. The Savannah River’s ecosystem is deserving of such diligence.
In a broad, competitive sense, the water projects bill and the work it provides for is significant because it marks a notable down payment on America’s backlog of badly needed infrastructure work. Much of that list includes rebuilding or upgrading existing structures and systems that are simply worn out, outmoded, or both. The type of investments and maintenance that successful private-sector businesses routinely budget for to ensure continued prosperity should likewise be a priority in the public sector. And, to be clear here, we mean strategic investments in vital public infrastructure, not pork intended to primarily feed bureaucracies or narrow special interests.
So, when it comes to legislation like the water projects bill, we agree with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who remarked last month that it is indeed “a significant policy achievement. It demonstrates the kind of progress that we can make when Democrats will work together with us to deal with the American people’s priorities.”
And, as Georgia’s U.S. senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson pointed out in a joint press release late last month, “Congress has confirmed what we in Georgia already knew — the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is crucial for our region and the nation as a whole.”
We concur. So quickly on toward the truly final approvals and let the work finally begin.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

Port work a plus for Georgia economy

By Curtis Foltz
With last week’s congressional approval of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act , construction of the   Savannah Harbor expansion should finally begin this year. The project’s importance to Georgia cannot be overstated: more than 350,000 jobs in our state — 150,000 in metro Atlanta — are connected to our ports. And the benefit to America is manifold: The harbor deepening is expected to return $5.50 for every dollar invested. The bill awaiting the president’s signature includes  approvals and reforms  crucial to the estimated one-quarter of our nation’s GDP directly attributable to global trade.
The legislation  will help modernize America’s aging maritime infrastructure, which is critical to  global trade . The U.S. needs investment at every level to increase the  efficiency and safety of our ports. The bill authorizes projects and controls spending by sunsetting unfunded initiatives. It aims to reform the protracted process that required nearly 20 years to reach this juncture for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.
Savannah has become the port of choice in the Southeast for many reasons including the  investments the Georgia Ports Authority has made — and continues to make — in port facilities, increasing efficiency for our customers and responsibly stewarding  natural resources. The most recent improvements at the Savannah port include  more efficient cranes , added facilities for refrigerated cargo, and technology to improve the movement of cargo .
Equally important is Georgia’s investment in transportation infrastructure .  For example, the Jimmy Deloach Parkway Extension will bring Interstate 95 directly into the port. Under construction now, the project will deliver economic and environmental benefits by segregating port traffic from commuter traffic, thereby reducing driving times  and  em issions. And these public investments are leveraging private logistics infrastructure  across Georgia and the Southeast.
Georgians owe  gratitude to our congressional delegation for their unwavering, bipartisan  advocacy for Georgia’s ports, and our national water infrastructure . The bill passed last week  raises the spending limit set when the harbor expansion project was first authorized in 1999, which will let  state and federal dollars flow to the port deepening. Thanks to Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly, we have in place $266 million to begin construction as soon as a project partnership agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Georgia is signed.
The first work on the project will include dredging to extend the entrance channel from the mouth of the Savannah River seven miles farther into the Atlantic Ocean. Other early project elements include mitigation features such as an oxygen injection system, a freshwater storage alternative for  Savannah and the recovery of what remains of the CSS Georgia.
We urge the president to move swiftly to enact the WRRDA legislation. And we look forward to continued leadership and support from Congress and the administration to fund the federal government’s share of  harbor expansion  costs.

Curtis Foltz is executive director, Georgia Ports Authority.

 

Water bill ducks choices, encourages wasteful spending

By David Kyler
Much has been said in response to recent news from Washington about a bill supposedly giving the go-ahead on Savannah’s harbor deepening project. Misleading statements about the project, both before this news and afterward, need to be clarified .
The Congressional action in question, the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), authorizes $16 billion in federal funding for water projects, making a pretense of responsible restraint, yet weakening controls that would help prevent wasteful spending. Furthermore, authorizing funds under WRRDA provides no guarantee that spending will be appropriated by Congress.
Nationally, projects authorized – including Savannah’s harbor deepening — are expected to entail at least an additional $10 billion in state and local spending. If federal funds fall short, more local money will be needed.
The last WRRDA bill, passed in 2007, required independent review of any project over $40 million to eliminate unworthy projects. In the 2014 version, this threshold is raised to $200 million, meaning that fewer projects will be scrutinized, raising chances of more tax dollars being squandered.
Thus, Georgia’s port-deepening enthusiasts may be celebrating  prematurely, because funds authorized clearly are not funds appropriated. Before removing a single scoop of channel bottom, Georgians had better be sure of the deal they’re getting.  Don’t assume  that the Savannah project,  now estimated at over $700 million, will receive federal funding anytime soon, if ever.
For that reason, the General Assembly must consider whether the state wants to commit to funding the entire project if Congress fails to deliver. Unless such spending is approved by a majority of state legislators, the project should not be started.
But even more fundamentally, the U.S. remains the only major nation lacking a port development plan or strategy. This conspicuous negligence has only one plausible explanation: having such a plan would require objective criteria to establish national priorities for spending public funds on port projects. Without a national port development plan, our wasteful piecemeal process can continue, allowing lavish spending on inadequately justified projects .
As I’ve previously explained, Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is some 38 miles upriver and — revealingly — the only port allegedly vying for “world-class” mega-ship status worldwide that isn’t close to the ocean, immediately accessible to major shipping channels. The enormous budget for trying to control the project’s environmental risks, nearly half its total cost, is further evidence of that problem.
In highly competitive global trade, the only justification for expensive harbor deepening is enhancing the function of mega-ship ‘hubs,’ essential to trans-shipping. Upriver locations like Savannah’s port are simply not capable of operating as hubs.
For Americans to come to grips with the dual goals of prudent national economic development and wise government spending, we must move beyond state-by-state appeasement of irrational, parochial political demands.

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast, based on Saint Simons Island.


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