When Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed showed up at the White House to lobby for the deepening of the Savannah River, he got some strange looks.

Obama administration staffers seemed to wonder why the mayor of the Georgia capital would travel to Washington to support a project some 250 miles away, Mr. Reed told about 30 foreign ambassadors visiting Atlanta in October.

For Mr. Reed, it was a no-brainer, as the health of the nation’s fourth-busiest container port has significant implications for employment in Atlanta and for the mayor’s goal of making the city a logistics hub for the hemisphere.

In recent months, Mr. Reed has stood with Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz and other business leaders to highlight the importance of the project. With an estimated price tag of more than $600 million, it will rely heavily on infrastructure funding from a cash-strapped federal government facing increasing public scrutiny on spending.

At issue is a mere six feet that could determine whether the fastest growing port in the country can maintain its momentum into the next decade. If the river isn’t dredged from 42 to 48 feet, the port won’t be able to handle ships with deeper drafts that will traverse an expanded Panama Canal by 2014. If Savannah is unprepared, leaders have warned, shippers will take their business elsewhere to take advantage of cost efficiencies. The newer generation of ships can hold as many as three times more containers than those currently passing through the canal.

Georgia’s U.S. senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, have both issued statements in support of the project, for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its draft environmental impact statement on Nov. 16. This report is seen as a major milestone that sets the stage for final approval by the end of 2011. Construction would begin in 2012, some 14 years after the project was first discussed.

The Georgia ports posted their best month ever for container traffic in October. The ports sustain more than 295,000 jobs around the state, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.

Related coverage from the year: 

Savannah River Deepening Vital for Georgia Exporters

Video: Savannah Port Deepening a ‘Must-Have’ 

Official: Panama Canal, Georgia Ports ‘Connected at the Hip’

Panama’s U.S. Ambassador: Savannah Harbor Deepening ‘Vital’

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...