Final deal to begin dredeing Savannah harbor is close, but 2014 construction start 'ambitious'

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SAVANNAH, Georgia — Within two weeks, officials expect to sign a cost-sharing deal with the federal government that's needed to start deepening the busy shipping channel to the Port of Savannah, the Georgia Ports Authority's top executive said Monday, meaning construction could begin within a few months on the $706 million project state officials have pursued for 15 years.

"Everybody is elated that it now looks like the final authorization is going to happen," Curtis Foltz, the port authority's executive director, said Monday after telling the agency's board of directors he expects the agreement to be finished in "10 to 14 days."

The $706 million project will dredge five feet of sand and mud from roughly 30 miles of the Savannah River connecting the port to the Atlantic Ocean. Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling for deeper water to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal in little more than a year.

Nearly two years have passed since the federal government gave final approval to the Savannah project, first proposed in 1999. But funding from Washington has been tough to get, so Gov. Nathan Deal has pushed to get dredging started using Georgia's $266 million share of the cost upfront. That required a cost-sharing agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency overseeing the project.

Foltz said Monday he still hopes there's time "to have a dredge in the water on the outer bar by the end of the year," though he deferred to the Army Corps on the timetable.

Billy Birdwell, an Army Corps spokesman in Savannah, said the agency has contracts already prepared to submit for bidding as soon as the final agreement is signed. It's expected to take two to three months to select a contractor to dredge the Savannah harbor, Birdwell said, leaving little time to get construction started before New Year's.

"That would be ambitious, but not impossible," Birdwell said.

The Corps plans to start dredging offshore in the outer harbor off Tybee Island, then work upriver past downtown Savannah to the port's docks. Completion is expected sometime in 2018.

Port officials say the harbor expansion can't wait, as population growth in the Southeast fuels demand for goods shipped through Savannah. Already the nation's fourth-busiest seaport for containerized cargo, Savannah set a new record in fiscal 2014 by handling 3.1 million containers of imports and exports ranging from consumer electronics to frozen chickens.

Foltz said Monday that business is still growing in the new fiscal year that started July 1. In August, the Savannah port exceeded 300,000 container units in a single month for the first time. Some of the recent growth was attributed to protracted labor negotiations on the West Coast, which have caused shipping companies to divert some cargo to Savannah and other East Coast ports to avoid delays if a strike should occur.

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