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Georgia senators applaud passage of Water Act (Sen. Chambliss video)

The bill authorizes federal funding to deepen the Savannah Harbor

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, issued a joint statement with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in which they applauded passage of the federal water act that authorizes an increased funding level for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. (Albany Herald file photo)

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, issued a joint statement with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in which they applauded passage of the federal water act that authorizes an increased funding level for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. (Albany Herald file photo)

WASHINGTON — Both Georgia senators applauded the Senate passage Thursday of the conference report on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which for Georgia means work on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project could start soon.

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U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta

The $12.3 billion legislation, the first water legislation passed in seven years, was approved by the House 412-4 on Tuesday, which means it only needs President Barack Obama’s signature to go into effect. Among the items on the act is congressional authorization to fund the $706 million dredging of the Savannah Harbor to accommodate the huge ships that will be using the Panama Canal when its expansion is complete.

U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, and Johnny Iskason, R-Marietta, released a joint statement on the passage, which came in a 91-7 vote:

“With the passage of WRRDA (the water act), Congress has confirmed what we in Georgia already knew — the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is crucial for our region and the nation as a whole,” the senators said. “This economic engine will support hundreds of thousands of jobs each year while generating billions in revenue for the entire Southeast.

“It is because of this fact the project has had overwhelming, bipartisan support from local, state and federal officials. For a decade and a half, we have completed every task set before us to get this project done. We have now cleared the last congressional hurdle, paving the way for the administration to give a green light to the state of Georgia to begin construction on what will be the largest port on the East Coast for the Post-Panama ships.”

The senators had said the increased funding for the project was authorized in last year’s federal budget agreement, but the Obama administration would not authorize the spending, saying it had to be approved in the long-delayed reauthorization of the 1999 Water Resources and Development Act, which first authorized the deepening of the Georgia port.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate Thursday, Chambliss, who is not seeking re-election this year, noted that he made a commitment to Georgia residents to see the project through.

He said that “the passage of this bill, with the enhanced authorization it contains for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, will be the culmination of years of work by the state of Georgia and project stakeholders – and my entire time serving in the Georgia congressional delegation. … It has been my number one economic priority for Georgia while in office.

“The fact remains that for every $1 invested in the project, the nation will see nearly $6 in return. For Georgia, the value of SHEP is almost immeasurable. The port already supports 300,000 jobs and when post-Panamax vessels start rolling into Savannah, the economic benefits will increase dramatically. … Congress has once again agreed with us that SHEP is a vital project for our country. Now that we have completed our work, it is imperative that the administration carry through with its commitments.”

Georgia is funding $206 million of the cost of the project and Gov. Nathan Deal attempted to get work under way using that state funding, but the U.S. Corps of Engineers would not allow the state to begin. Lawmakers in Georgia and economic officials were concerned that delays would place the Savannah Port in jeopardy of being selected by companies using the huge ships to transport goods, since those plans are drawn up well in advance.

The Savannah Harbor now is about 42 feet deep and needs to be deepened to 47 feet to accommodate the new, bigger ships that will using the Panama Canal, where an expansion project is nearing completion. That canal project will allow vessels traveling to and from the East Coast to have drafts from 39.5 feet to 50 feet.

The senators said the Corps of Engineers estimate the Savannah Port will bring in $115 million a year in economic benefits, mostly from reducing transportation costs.

The effect is expected to be felt deeper inland in Georgia with the development of a planned inland port in Cordele that will be connected to the Savannah Port by rail.

The bill authorizes 33 other projects, including deepening of a Jacksonville, Fla., port and expansion of Boston Harbor. It also ends funding for about $18 billion in inactive projects that had been authorized in previous waterways legislation.