SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- A Georgia congressman said Wednesday he expects the U.S. House to take action this fall toward eliminating a final bureaucratic obstacle to deepening the busy shipping channel used by cargo ships to reach the Port of Savannah.
The $652 million project to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River was granted its required federal permit last year and legal challenges from environmental groups and state agencies in South Carolina, which shares the river, were settled in May. But construction is still being held up by a technicality written into federal law 14 years ago.
Congress authorized the Savannah harbor expansion in 1999 with a spending cap of $459 million — nearly $200 million less than the current cost estimate. The Senate voted in May to eliminate the cap as part of a larger water-projects bill now pending in the House. Rep. John Barrow said during a visit to the Savannah port Wednesday that he expects the House Transportation Committee to take up the measure soon after lawmakers return Sept. 9.
"I think the best estimate is late September, early October for when the committee may get around to marking up a House version" of the bill, said Barrow, a Democrat from Augusta. "Then there will be an opportunity to compare notes with the Senate version down the road."
Jamie McCurry, government affairs director for the Georgia Ports Authority, said port officials hope the bill eliminating the spending cap will move quickly enough to be signed into law by the end of the year.
Like other East Coast seaports, the Port of Savannah — the fourth busiest container port in the U.S. — is scrambling to deepen its shipping channel to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal in mid-2015. Georgia port officials want to start dredging next year in order to finish the harbor expansion in 2017.
"It's essentially a very simple thing and it's almost a technicality," McCurry said of the spending cap issue before Congress. "At this point that is the only thing really standing in the way of construction actually beginning."
The Savannah harbor expansion is among more than 20 water-related projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers that are contained in the Senate-passed bill now before the House.
Even if the spending cap is dealt with, Washington still hasn't come up with funding to start deepening the Savannah harbor. But Gov. Nathan Deal has said he's willing to consider using state money upfront as long as the federal government pays its share later. Georgia lawmakers have allocated $231 million toward the state's 40 percent share of the project.
Barrow said he's not too concerned about the water-projects bill becoming bogged down by partisan gridlock in Congress.
"Transportation infrastructure stuff has always tended to be much less partisan," he said. "Everybody likes paved roads."