Savannah Harbor Expansion Project faces lingering questions on funding, environmental impact

Georgia’s top elected officials have already aimed harsh criticism at the Obama administration for its relatively meager funding for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project in the President’s proposed 2017 budget. Click here for Nicole Hammett’s post about those criticisms.

The Savannah Morning News (where I’ve been a freelance columnist for 15 years) also has extensive coverage of the funding issues today. From President’s budget shortchanges Savannah harbor deepening:

“It’s really unbelievable that the same president who called this a ‘We Can’t Wait’ project and sent his vice president here to proclaim this will get done ‘Come hell or high water’ can’t put enough money in his budget to keep it on track,” [Representative Buddy] Carter said Tuesday.

“Failing to provide adequate funding for this critical project will result in delays and threaten to increase the cost to taxpayers. This project is essential for jobs and economic growth in the First District, the Southeast, and the entire nation and this administration must realize this truth and prioritize the project. This has been a long fight, which is clearly not over, and I will do everything in my power to ensure the federal government meets the commitment of the state.”

According to the Army Corps of Engineers’ current construction plan, if the federal government fails to provide at least $80-$100 million a year to the project, for fiscal years 2017-2020, the project cannot be completed on time and the resulting delays will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Obviously, it’s possible that proposed budget might provide more money for the $700 million+ dredging project if our elected representatives had a better working relationship the administration, but I’ll leave that issue for others to speculate about.

I’ve always had more concerns and less optimism about SHEP than many other commentators — and those are the issues I’ll touch upon here.

First off, consider the refrains about delays in the project costing “taxpayer money.”

The economic benefits of the project — which are summarized in the SHEP overview posted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — are all related to increased efficiency and cost savings for shipping companies. With the Savannah River channel at its current depth, many ships cannot be fully loaded, some have to wait for high tides, and there are other problems that cause costly delays. The economic rationale for the project — a rationale that I accept, by the way — is that the savings for the shipping companies will eventually be passed along to manufacturers and consumers, both in the U.S. and abroad. Sure, those end users of products and those manufacturers (at least those in the U.S.) are “taxpayers,” but the use of that term creates an impression that there are more specific tax benefits to a deeper channel. That’s not the way the economic analysis works.

Many of us have other concerns about the project, and many people that I know are in favor of the project but still have major concerns about it. A few things to keep in mind:

  • For the dredging of the inner harbor ever to happen, we have to see positive results from fourteen two-story Speece cones (sometimes called “bubblers”) that will inject oxygen into the river to make up for changes effected by dredging. The technology should work, according to the Corps and according to limited data, but the mitigation will have to be proven. (The suggested allocation in the 2017 budget doesn’t even cover the cost of all the Speece cones.)
  • The corps’ environmental studies pointed to a wide variety of other probable and possible impacts of dredging. The Feb. 8 article Endangered species killed in Savannah Harbor from The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. touches upon a few lingering unknowns.
  • Also, it’s worth noting that when the Savannah Harbor has been dredged to 47′, it will still be shallower than some other ports on the East Coast. Click here for a 2012 map of channel depths at U.S. ports and the classes of ships they can accommodate.
  • There has been considerable debate about how the Panama Canal expansion will impact the shipping business on the East Coast, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the Corps of Engineers’ original economic analysis did not predict that dredging would increase the number of containers handled at the Georgia ports. All the economic gains (both current and projected) would come from increased efficiency, not increased traffic.

This issue is just more nuanced than the state’s elected officials are leading Georgians to believe. There are ample reasons to support SHEP based upon the project’s merits, and I think it’s a shame that Georgia’s elected leaders continue to use overheated, come-hell-or-high-water rhetoric.

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