Curtis Foltz

The executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority on Friday urged business leaders to lobby for deepening Savannah harbor.

“If there has ever been a time that you reached out to your elected officials, wrote letters, made phone calls, attended meetings, became passionate about the need to deepen this harbor, it is now,” Curtis Foltz said in a speech to 130 members of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center.

The ports authority could be less than a year away from winning federal approval for the project, which would then allow it to seek funding from Congress.

The port needs to be deepened to accommodate larger cargo vessels that will traverse the Panama Canal once a $5 billion expansion is completed by 2014, said Mr. Foltz. 

The expansion will allow much larger ships, called post-panamax vessels, to use the canal. The new ships will be able to haul up to three times more containers than a conventional vessel. 

In order to accommodate the larger ships when they are fully loaded, the Savannah harbor will have to be deepened from the current 42 feet to 48 feet, which would cost about $600 million. Before the project can begin, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must sign off on a plan, which by federal law must include measures to mitigate environmental impact of the deepening. Georgia would then approach Congress for funding. 

The Corps of Engineers is expected to issue a decision by mid 2011, Mr. Foltz said Friday. A 60-day public comment period on the project is expected to begin in late October. The Georgia General Assembly this year authorized $68 million in bonds for the deepening. 

“This project is critically important to every Georgian,” said Mr. Foltz. “As you reach out to your congressman, your senator or any contact that you have, they need to understand that this needs to become a top priority.”

In an interview with GlobalAtlanta following the speech, Mr. Foltz said he is confident the Obama administration will support the deepening project.

“I think the administration recognizes how critically important this project is to commerce,” he said. “They are very pro exports.”

The Corps of Engineers has developed a strong plan to mitigate the environmental impact of the deepening, he added.

“They spent 11 years and $38 million studying the environmental impact, putting together the environmental mitigation plan,” he said. “They’ve done their due diligence in identifying programs that will actively and effectively mitigate the environmental impact of the deepening.”  

More than $8 billion in cargo was shipped between the Savannah port and metro Atlanta last fiscal year, according to the ports authority.

The deepening is not just important for the Georgia Ports Authority but will benefit the entire state, Mr. Foltz added.

For more on the Georgia ports, click here.