Gov. Nathan Deal: timing of federal approval for Savannah port ‘fortunate’

By Maria Saporta

Key state leaders believe the deepening of the Savannah Port will go forward no matter who is elected as president on Nov. 6.

Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday, after a Georgia Chamber of Commerce “State of the Ports” luncheon, that he was relieved when the project received final federal approval a few days ago.

“We are fortunate that they made this designation before the election,” Deal said. “It’s an indication that this won’t be held up for political reasons.”

The deepening of the Savannah Port from 42 feet to 47 feet is considered by state leaders as a critical economic development project so the state can accommodate the much bigger ships that will be able to pass through an improved Panama Canal — a project that is expected to be completed by 2014 or 2015.

Georgia has been working on the deepening of the Savannah Port since 1996, according to Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.

The state already has put in more than $180 million into the project, and Gov. Deal said Tuesday that he is prepared to continue investing in the port. While he doesn’t yet know the exact amount, he expects his budget will include about $40 million in bond funding for the project.

“It’s important that this project begins even if we have to start it with just state funding,” Deal said, adding that he believes the “federal money will be forthcoming.”

If the $652 million project keeps moving forward, Deal said it could be completed in 2016. But federal buy-in will be critical to implement the project.

During the administration of President Barack Obama, the deepening of the Savannah Port received several boosts. It was designated as a fast track project by the federal government. And this past Friday, Joe-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Army over civil works, signed the “Record of Decision” that provided the final federal approval for the project.

Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat with close ties to the Obama administration, have worked hand-in-hand to get the project to this point.

“We have extremely strong bi-partisan support,” Foltz said. “It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on.”

Foltz said it was quite an accomplishment to have every member of Georgia’s Congressional delegation sign a letter supporting the project.

“Purely from a port perspective, whatever happens on Nov. 6, and whomever is in the White House, will support our ports,” Foltz said. “Both candidates know how important this project is going forward. We are very confident that either candidate will continue to support our port deepening.”

The Georgia Ports Authority does have an inside track to the Republican nominee — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The former chairman of the authority — Alec Poitevint II of Bainbridge — chaired the Republican Party’s 2012 political convention in Tampa which nominated Romney. Poitevint continues to serve on the authority’s board.

“We have a number of people on the board who have strong ties to the Romney campaign,” said Steve Green, a former authority chairman. Green, who also still sits on the board, is the incoming chair of the Georgia Chamber. “We have tried to be ecumenical in our approach to this. We have been fortunate that we have had bi-partisan support for this from the very beginning.”

Green, however, said that no matter who is elected on Nov. 6, “we will be confronted with the same challenges of the financial issues that we are facing in this country.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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