Feds award $134.5M contract to dredging company to begin Savannah harbor expansion

IndustrialsAssociated Press

The federal government Wednesday awarded a $134.5 million contract to begin deepening the river channel ships use to reach the busy Port of Savannah, meaning the long-sought harbor expansion can begin as soon as the contractor gets its dredging equipment in the water.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it hired Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company to dredge the outer harbor, beginning in the Savannah River off Tybee Island and extending into the Atlantic Ocean. The 18-mile stretch covers roughly half of the total shipping channel.

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"We are well on our way to putting a critical piece of transportation infrastructure in place that will benefit not only the Southeast, but the entire nation," Col. Tom Tickner, commander of the Army Corps' Savannah District, said in a prepared statement.

East Coast seaports including Savannah are scrambling for deeper channels to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal next year. Some of the big ships are already coming from Asia through the Suez Canal, but shallower channel depths mean they can't carry full loads or arrive at low tide.

The federal government and Georgia expect to spend $706 million altogether to deepen the Savannah harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet. The Army Corps said Wednesday it doesn't know how soon the contractor will begin dredging. But deepening the outer harbor is expected to take about three years. At the earliest, the entire harbor expansion along 39 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Savannah port's docks is expected to wrap up in 2020.

It's already been a long wait getting to this point — Congress first authorized studying the project in 1999.

The Port of Savannah is the nation's fourth-busiest container port, and is No. 2 on the East Coast behind only the Port of New York/New Jersey. Last year the Savannah port handled more than 3 million containers of imports and exports, including items ranging from consumer electronics to frozen chickens.