Ongoing efforts to secure approval and funding for deepening of the port and the Savannah River are vital to the nation’s fourth-busiest port and our state’s participation in the global economy.
By the AJC Editorial Board
Rivers are deceptive in that their unyielding flow masks the power and urgency moving just beneath the surface.
That’s certainly true of the 30-odd miles of river connecting the mighty Port of Savannah with the Atlantic Ocean. The river and its ports are a vital conduit, connecting Georgia and much of the rest of the U.S. with global trade flows. It’s among the shiniest of tools in the state’s economy.
We must keep refining and improving this asset. Thus, it’s encouraging that efforts continue unabated to push for a $650 million project to dredge the port and river.
That should be remembered this week when the expected resumption of labor talks pushes the port back into the news.
It’s also important to keep in mind that rivers run slowly, but surely. Sort of like progress on the deepening proposal. Earlier this summer, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to put the gas to their review of the project. Observers see that as a positive sign of White House support.
Given that Washington’s known more for plodding slowly through convoluted paperwork, the decision to hasten the review process, part of a campaign known as “We Can’t Wait,” is noteworthy.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which must sign off on the deepening work, is expected to deliver its opinion on the deepening plan by year’s end. That would be a good thing. As U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss remarked in July, “It is time that the planning phase come to an end, and we move to construction.”
Getting underway on the dredging is vital for the East’s second-largest port. Larger ships on the horizon will require deeper harbors. And bustling Savannah harbor continues to set records. In fiscal 2012, it chalked up double-digit growth in bulk shipments of raw materials and some finished goods. That’s a healthy sign for Georgia’s economy, even as our state and country continue to slowly struggle toward decent growth.
It’s not all clear sailing yet for Savannah, however. There are short- and long-term risks on the horizon.
This week, talks are scheduled to resume in a labor dispute with the International Longshoremen’s Association, which threatens to shut down East Coast ports at the start of the busy fall months when retailers receive holiday goods. Earlier this month, the president of the ILA’s local in Savannah reported “significant progress.” We hope that progressive tone continues when talks resume this week. We can’t afford the disruption of a strike that would block such a critical gateway to the world for much of the U.S.
Another challenge to the Savannah expansion work comes from a federal lawsuit brought by environmental groups in two states challenging the dredging work. Two South Carolina state agencies have also asked to join the suit, which alleges that the project would dump toxic cadmium from river silt onto the Palmetto State’s shores.
Broadly, the environmental concerns are understandable. And, yes, the construction work should be done in such a way as to mitigate damage to river ecosystems.
But as far as South Carolina’s concerned, though, the lawsuit clearly plays another role – one rooted solely in economics, not environmentalism. South Carolina is employing a convenient tactic to delay, if not outright stop, progress on the Savannah deepening.
Hindering the Savannah work would create a valuable competitive advantage for Charleston’s port 100 miles away. Yes, hustling for business is healthy, even among government agencies seeking to better their state’s economic environment.
That point noted, the mediator assigned to the federal lawsuit should keep true intentions of all litigants in mind.
While lawyers argue and Corps planners weigh the benefits of both Charleston’s and Savannah’s deepening plans, our ports continue to bring prosperity inland to Georgia and beyond. None of us should forget that important role. It’s worth Georgia’s continued fight.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
Work on port is a sound investment
By Curtis Foltz
This summer’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, created by Presidential Executive Order, will speed permitting and decision-making in the modernization and expansion of five major U.S. ports. With the clock ticking toward the opening of an expanded Panama Canal sending larger container ships our way beginning in 2015, the case for these port projects — including expanding the Savannah Harbor — is increasingly urgent. The U.S. economy can thrive again, but we must invest now in the infrastructure to fuel another generation of growth and to help ensure America’s global competitiveness.
“We Can’t Wait” also establishes a White House-led, multi-federal agency Navigation Task Force that will develop a strategy focused on the economic return on investments into coastal ports and related infrastructure to support the movement of commerce in the nation. Such a study was conducted for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, and the results show the nation will benefit greatly from this investment. In fact, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the project will yield a benefit-to-cost ratio of 5.5 dollars for every dollar spent on the deepening and will provide a net annual benefit of $174 million to the nation.
Georgians will also benefit. Location near an efficient port avoids landside transportation costs and continues to attract businesses to our area. According to a recent University of Georgia study, 352,000 jobs in Georgia are connected to the state’s ports. Crucial to supporting these jobs is our ability to export as efficiently as possible containers filled with raw materials (including Georgia’s kaolin clay) and manufactured goods (including our state’s forest products, poultry and other products). The port now handles 12 percent of the total export tonnage leaving the U.S.
The Corps recently delivered its project recommendation to the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Office of Management and Budget for final review and approval. The Corps’ study of the harbor expansion project over the past dozen years has included unprecedented consultations among the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal and state agencies, as well as non-governmental stakeholders, to identify and address all issues of concern.
The next step toward federal approval and funding is the Record of Decision . Upon final approval, significant construction can begin next year . Our ability to compete successfully in world trade — for our state, our region and our country — depends on it.
Curtis Foltz is executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.