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Senate bill would clear Savannah harbor obstacle

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- A water-projects bill approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate contains a provision that would remove a bureaucratic obstacle to deepening the Savannah harbor if the measure becomes law.

Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss both praised passage of the new Water Resources Development Act, which still needs approval by the House. The bill would remove a spending cap of $459 million placed on the Savannah harbor project in 1999. The Army Corps of Engineers now estimates the project will cost substantially more — about $652 million.

"It represents major progress in terms of allowing the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project to move forward," Isakson said in a statement.

Like other seaports on the East Coast, the Port of Savannah is scrambling to deepen its shipping channel to accommodate supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion in 2015. Georgia officials want to start dredging along 30 miles of the Savannah River, which need to be deepened from 42 to 47 feet, by the end of the year.

The Senate bill would sanction more than 20 Army Corps projects, including port improvements. It would help the Port of Savannah by clearing the way for Georgia officials and the federal government to sign a partnership agreement that spells out how they will share the costs. The Army Corps needs that agreement before construction can start, but the spending limit imposed 14 years ago must be raised first.

The Senate-passed measure doesn't include new funding for the Savannah harbor or other projects, thanks to Congress' ban on so-called "earmark" spending.

The federal government gave the project final approval last fall. But it's been tough to get federal money with Washington focused on budget cuts and deficit reduction. President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the next fiscal year seeks $1.28 million for the Savannah harbor — far from the $70 million to $100 million needed to begin construction.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he would consider paying for the first year of construction almost entirely with state funds. Georgia lawmakers have already set aside $231 million toward the state's 40 percent share.