Digging begins on $706 million deepening of Savannah harbor after 16-year wait

Crews working round-the-clock have begun deepening the waterway cargo ships use to reach the busy Port of Savannah, which spent 16 years waiting for studies and funding before dredging could start.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency overseeing the $706 million Savannah harbor expansion, called a news conference Monday to celebrate the project's start on Tybee Island as crews on a 220-foot dredging barge worked about 5 miles offshore.

Workers for contractor Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company actually got started last Thursday. The Illinois-based company is being paid $134.5 million to deepen 17 miles of the shipping channel — about half the total route between the Savannah port and the Atlantic Ocean.

"It's a lot like a highway construction job," said Armand Riehl, project manager for Great Lakes. "It's just happening underwater."

The dredging barge uses a rotating cutting tool that's like a drill bit 8 feet in diameter to break up sand and sediment from the bottom of the waterway. The loose muck gets sucked through a giant hose and sprayed into what are essentially floating dump trucks that get pulled by tugboats to dispose of the spoils at a designated spot in the ocean.

It's not fast work. Even with two crews working 12-hour shifts, the dredging barge moves forward each day only about the length of a football field, Riehl said. During that time it removes enough sand to fill roughly 1,400 dump trucks.

According to its contract with the Army Corps, the contractor has until July 18, 2018, to finish deepening the outer harbor — which begins off the north end of Tybee Island and runs several miles out to sea.

"We're excited that we're off the starting blocks," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. "We'll really be prepared to celebrate at the finish line."

Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling for deeper water to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving through an expanded Panama Canal next year. The Georgia project will deepen 39 miles along the Savannah River by 5 feet. It's taken a long time to get started. Congress first authorized the harbor expansion in 1999.

The Army Corps says the entire harbor expansion could wrap up in 2021 at the earliest.

The construction schedule will largely depend on how quickly Washington funds its 60-percent share.

To get things started, the state of Georgia agreed to spend its $266 million share upfront. Most of that money is being spent on multiyear contracts this year. The Obama administration and Congress, meanwhile, have put up $42 million total in the last two fiscal years.

If more money doesn't come by mid-2016, the Army Corps may have to delay some upcoming contracts, said Jason O'Kane, the agency's project manager for the harbor expansion.

"To stay on a six-year construction plan, we would need more funding in the later years," O'Kane said. "If you don't secure funding now, you can't plan to award those contracts."