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Super-sizing Savannah

Why Atlanta's mayor cares so much about improving another city's port

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There's a reason movie producers looking for financing typically describe their upcoming project with a boiled-down, six- or seven-word pitch: It's the easiest way to get people excited and willing to open their checkbooks.

Mayor Kasim Reed has just such a pitch for anyone who wonders why Georgia is lavishing so much time, effort, and tax money on deepening the port of Savannah: If we deepen the port, it'll be another Hartsfield-Jackson.

Reductive, yes. Speculative, certainly. But I bet it got your attention. Because even if you don't know much about the international cargo trade — or, specifically, about the ginormous, next-generation Panamax freighters that a deeper waterway could accommodate — you know what success looks like. You realize that our airport is one of the main economic engines for metro Atlanta and the state as a whole. And if you buy into the mayor's analogy, then the port-deepening starts looking like the vehicle that could carry Georgia to the next level of economic recovery. Now you know why Reed, Gov. Nathan Deal, and Sen. Johnny Isakson are prodding the Obama administration to come through with Washington's share of the $650 million needed to deepen nearly 40 miles of the Savannah River and the accompanying shipping channel into the Atlantic Ocean by six feet.

Although the subject of port-deepening seems to have popped onto the local radar screen only in the past year or so, the project actually has been in the works since 1998. That year, after deciding that deepening Georgia's busiest port was a national priority, the Clinton administration appropriated the $300 million that the project was then expected to cost, and the Georgia Ports Authority began addressing nearly 150 conditions established by the Army Corps of Engineers.

More than a decade later, Georgia has satisfied all but a handful of the Corps' provisions, and Reed says none of those are deal-breakers. But since inflation and add-ons have sent the price tag soaring to more than double the original appropriation, federal rules require the project be reapproved — and political realities (i.e., no Congressional earmarks) mean that money must come directly from the president's budget. That's why the mayor's close ties to the administration (Reed's been tapped for a national role in the president's re-election campaign) have been crucial in pleading Savannah's case.

Deal, meanwhile, has been busy helping persuade South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to support Georgia's proposal over the protests of Palmetto State lawmakers who argue she should be pushing for Charleston instead. In February, after South Carolina officials had first denied, then approved Georgia's environmental permit to dredge the waterway that divides the two states, Haley vetoed her own legislature's efforts to block the permit. Her public explanation is that a thriving port of Savannah would be a boon to the entire region, which is likely. The complete reason, however, probably involves political horse-trading. With the Tea Party looking over her shoulder and Sen. Jim DeMint attacking the president on a weekly basis, Haley can't lobby the feds for any favors — but Deal can ask on her behalf.

Also, Reed points out, there's no real competition between Savannah and Charleston. Commonly cited as the fastest-growing port in the country, Savannah handles nearly 3 million cargo containers annually — far less than New York or L.A., but more than twice the volume of Charleston.

The reason Deal and Reed are pushing so hard to get the port funded in the 2012 federal budget is that a new channel now being cut in the Panama Canal will soon allow super-sized freighters carrying three times as much cargo as before to travel to the eastern seaboard. Even if Savannah isn't ready by the canal's 2014 opening date, a federal funding commitment would allow the Ports Authority to begin negotiating long-term contracts with shippers that would give the state a leg up on our competition, Reed says.

A recent investigative series by the AJC portrayed the Savannah port-deepening as an expensive gamble, part of an "arms race" now under way between several East Coast states that not everyone can win. All that may be true, but Reed believes the potential payoff justifies the risk. Plus, he argues, Savannah has several advantages. It has room to grow, unlike New York, and is much closer to the canal. Also, it currently exports more goods than it imports, which fits with the president's support for domestic job-creation. Finally, there's Hartsfield-Jackson. The world's busiest airport has the capacity to send air freight to 80 percent of the country within two hours.

"On any given day at Hartsfield-Jackson, there's 55,000 people earning livings to support their families," he explains. "But at midnight or 1 a.m., it's quite quiet. We're first in the world for passenger traffic, but we're not a top-10 freight, cargo, and logistics airport. If what we're doing works, in 10 or 20 years, Hartsfield-Jackson will be as busy at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday as it is at 4 p.m. on a Saturday. ... Not to do everything we can to make this happen just doesn't represent leadership."

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