Savannah harbor project green-lighted amid strikes, lawsuits - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Savannah harbor deepening green-lit amid strikes and lawsuits

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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) -

Despite lawsuits and threats of a strike, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced he will ask for $50 million in additional funding for the deepening of the Savannnah harbor in next year's state budget.

If it passes, the $50 million will increase the amount of state general obligation bonds, so far, to $231 million. It puts the state within $25 million of reaching their projected share of the project.

Deal said it's the federal government's turn to take an aggressive approach to investing in the project, which we will begin to see take shape next year.

"This is a great day in Georgia and in Savannah and the project for deepening the port," Deal said. "We're looking forward to the federal government taking as aggressive a step as the State of Georgia has to get this project moving."

The governor, along with Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz, also announced the federal final approval to begin the project was granted last month in the form of a letter of decision.

Behind the scenes,  design and environmental work has already started and the Army Corps of Engineers will be awarding contracts for outer harbor dredging work by the middle of 2013.

Deal seemed confident the project will not see any more delays, even with the threat of a lawsuit from South Carolina lawmakers and the two words we have heard quite a bit lately: fiscal cliff.

"I do not think projects of this type will be severely impacted by it because they transcend any particular budget cycle at a federal level," Deal said.

The fiscal cliff refers to the package of spending cuts and expiring tax cuts set to kick in on Jan. 1. Deal, with strong support from army officials and legislators who all agree, says this harbor deepening project is not just for Georgia but has national impact with benefits far outweighing costs 5.5 to 1.

Construction could begin next year.

But, a lawsuit by South Carolina lawmakers still poses a threat as selling this project to lawmakers in the Palmetto State hasn't been easy.

Deal was optimistic about efforts to bypass legal action, as U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss actively builds bridges of communication with his South Carolina peers. A letter from the assistant secretary of the Army to federal lawmakers expressed Georgia's right to an exemption of environmental permits not granted yet due to South Carolina legal action and the national interests tied into the Savannah Harbor deepening.

Foltz hopes one state's gripe will not overshadow national benefit.

"She (the assistant secretary to the Army) has kind of conveyed the federal government's interest in not further delaying this project for unusual and unneeded reasons. So, we don't think the lawsuits as they currently exist, we think the federal government will stand tall and keep the project on schedule," Foltz said.

The assistant secretary's letter also indicated the $652 million project would reduce shipping costs by $213 million. Chambliss told WTOC he is working with U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham in hopes of defusing the dueling ports situation.

"We are a head of them (Port of Charleston) though from the standpoint we are ready for our deepening. I think Senator Graham understands that, and while he is an advocate for his port, he understands growing the economy of the United States and the importance ports around the country play to our economy," Chambliss told WTOC.

The lawsuit is one issue. Ongoing contract negotiations with International Longshoreman and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, and stevedores walking off the job, has created work disruption worries, not only in Savannah but up and down the coast and around the country.

There were reports, as late as Monday morning, stevedores walked off the job again at the Goergia Ports but came back by lunchtime. WTOC was first to report the disgruntled stevedores with Ports America walked off the job site Sunday afternoon after layoffs and other issues sparked a walkoff.

For the ILA, contract issues linger. Foltz said the stevedores are not Ports Authority personnel or with ILA, but the ILA contract negotiations, which now have a January 1st deadline, have many concerned.

The Georgia Ports Authority has already seen some decreases in cargo, which were anticipated they say, because of the contract issues with the ILA. The governor said the work stoppages need to stop, but the issues involving stevedores and the ILA contract are out of the hands of the Ports. 

"It is not something the ports authority is directly involved in but we do hope it gets resolved because we want this port to continue to grow as it has traditionally," Deal said.

"I would be remiss to not say we have an outstanding group of longshoremen leaders who and I know it is their interest to continue to serve our customers exceptionally well," Foltz said. 

The Maritime contract is not just a Georgia Ports issue, but covers ports from Maine all the way to Galveston, Texas.

Copyright 2012 WTOC. All rights reserved.

Port of Savannah Harbor Expansion Project

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See the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers final report on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

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