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June 4, 2013

Deal 'ready to spend' state funds to deepen harbor

SAVANNAH — Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday he's willing to use state money to start deepening the Port of Savannah's busy shipping channel without waiting for funding from Washington as long as the federal government promises to pay its share of the $652 million project later.

Speaking to reporters during a stop in Savannah, Deal cautioned that a couple of bureaucratic hurdles remain before funding issues get finalized. But he said it's still possible for dredging to begin before the end of the year.

"Time is of the essence," said Deal, who already has $231 million in state funding set aside for the Savannah harbor expansion. "So therefore we have our money available and we're ready to spend it to begin this project. We think we need to start as quickly as possible."

Savannah and other East Coast seaports are racing to deepen their harbors to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal in 2015. The federal government gave final approval to the project last year. But focus in Washington on budget cuts and deficit reduction have made it difficult to secure federal funding.

Still, other remaining obstacles to construction have begun to fall. Environmental groups and state agencies in South Carolina, which shares the Savannah River with Georgia, agreed last week to settle lawsuits over the harbor expansion and let the Army Corps of Engineers move forward with the project. And last month the U.S. Senate agreed to remove a $459 million spending cap placed on the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999, though the House still needs to pass the measure.

Once the spending limit gets raised to the current $652 million price tag, the state can work out a cost-sharing agreement with the Army Corps. Deal said Tuesday he's prepared to ask the Corps for permission to spend the state's 40 percent share of the project upfront in order to avoid further delays waiting for Congress to approve the needed federal funds.

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