The AJC Editorial Board
Six feet. That’s what stands between increased prosperity for Atlanta, Georgia and the Southeast. It is the depth of silt needing to be scraped from the Savannah River’s bed to allow passage of larger container ships expected to begin calling on Eastern Seaboard ports in 2014.
The $600 million project to dredge the 32 miles of river between the ocean and Savannah’s port must move forward quickly. The big ships won’t wait, and neither can Georgia.
As has been the case across four centuries now, oceangoing freighters docking in Savannah tie us into profitable global trading lanes. These days, they float dollars into Georgia’s economy by the billions.
We can’t afford to see that economic force and its jobs travel elsewhere when the bigger boats come calling. Public money spent to keep Savannah’s port globally competitive is a worthwhile investment in this region’s (and nation’s) economic competitiveness. Deepening the port will help create and retain jobs across Georgia.
State and local officials have rowed hard to lobby for the Savannah River work. Georgia taxpayers have already kicked in $134 million, and Gov. Nathan Deal plans to ask a spending-skittish General Assembly to approve another $46.7 million next year. Lawmakers should neither balk, nor grandstand, at this request.
Georgia should do its part, but the big money will come from Washington. The U.S. Senate is hashing over a spending bill that includes a $600,000 “placeholder” for Savannah. Our congressional lawmakers have also quietly worked to secure millions in additional funding.
And we can take heart in last week’s visit to the port by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. What he saw must have made a favorable impression because The Associated Press quoted him as saying, “We’ll figure out how to get the federal dollars to make this project happen.” Good for him.
And even better for Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who showed LaHood around the bustling harbor. Their work on this and other issues has apparently done a lot to change LaHood’s earlier views of transportation in Georgia. During a spirited 2009 meeting with this Editorial Board and in other public appearances, LaHood famously remarked then that Georgia wouldn’t get much in the way of federal funding for transit if it didn’t get “its act together.”
Now that Washington thinks we’ve gotten our act in order, it’s time for dissenting voices in South Carolina to do the same. Officials have kicked up a fuss there in recent days after the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control chose to permit the dredging project. In a backlash, South Carolina’s Savannah River Maritime Commission declared the dredging permit invalid.
Such political saber-rattling can be entertaining, but it’s also the sort of counterproductive small-ball that can cause the Southeast to lose economic growth to other regions that have the good sense to recognize they can do more through cohesion than through noisy clashes that scare away job creators and investors.
Interstate cooperation is needed. Think of the economic possibilities posed by working collaboratively to grow jobs and industry along the 105-mile corridor between Savannah and Charleston. Georgia’s latest $60 million overture to help satisfy South Carolina’s environmental concerns is a substantial good-will offering toward both this worthy effort and ensuring the river’s environment isn’t damaged by dredging.
As Gov. Deal remarked during the Georgia Chamber’s recent annual State of the Ports luncheon, “I do not view South Carolina as an enemy or competitor in that regard. We should be working together and if we do, we will all benefit and be better off.” Amen.
A protracted interstate squabble also sours the waters of cooperation that will be needed for the two states to partner in developing the proposed $5 billion port at Jasper, a few miles down the river from Savannah’s port.
Battling the Savannah project will not guarantee that Jasper gets built, or that Charleston’s port will see more ships.
Rather, it’s more likely to damage economic prospects to some degree in both states. If nothing else, South Carolina and Georgia should agree on rejecting that outcome.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board
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