SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The deepening of the Savannah harbor reached a major milestone Wednesday.
The work on the outer harbor is now done. This marks the midway point for the nearly $1 billion project. It's the biggest milestone yet.
Right now, the big ships coming here aren't maximizing their shipments because the river isn't deep enough. State leaders said the deepening not only helps the ports remain competitive but also provides a huge economic impact.
The Savannah River has seen its fair share of huge ships lately. The Cosco came last May. It was the biggest ship ever to call on the East Coast. Just three months later, French-owned Theodore Roosevelt broke that record.
"In order to allow these large vessels to come to the Georgia ports, the deepening of the channel was absolutely necessary," said Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.
During the outer harbor deepening, crews dug out about 20 miles of the ship channel. That phase came in early and under budget.
"That draws attention because typically these things, a lot can go wrong and a lot can extend the time that you're working," said Russell Wicke, a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The US Army Corps of Engineers said the estimated cost is $973 million, and it should be completed by January of 2022. The cost seems high, but a recent study showed a nationwide economic impact of about $280 million a year.
"The return on investment is what speaks the loudest. For every one of those dollars put in, that's $7.30 back into the national economy," Wicke said.
The next phase includes dredging of the inner harbor. Environmental tests and milestones must be passed before that starts. When that happens, the river will be deepened about five feet. State leaders said that's the difference in these massive ships choosing this port or another on the East Coast.
"That's what we do not want to happen. That's why the deepening of the Savannah harbor and the channel is so important to our state," Gov. Deal said.
The federal government pays for 75 percent of the project. The state pays the rest. In this year's budget, state leaders are dedicating another $35 million. That takes their total commitment over $300 million.
Recently, President Trump included about $50 million in the federal budget for the SHEP project. That's more than any other port in the country received.
"I think that's an indication that the president and the Congress recognize how important the Port of Savannah is. Not just for Georgia, not just for the Southeast, but literally to the entire United States," Gov. Deal said.
Georgia's congressional leaders are trying to get the federal money up to about $100 million annually.