Georgia governor OK with extra cost to lure more giant ships

With the largest cargo ship ever to visit the U.S. East Coast docked behind him, Gov. Nathan Deal said Friday he's willing to spend an additional $20 million from Georgia taxpayers to make room for more giant ships to reach the Port of Savannah.

Deal visited Savannah as dockworkers were unloading the COSCO Development, a massive vessel capable of carrying 13,000 cargo containers measuring 20-feet-long apiece. Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is racing to deepen its 39-mile (63-kilometer) shipping channel so similar big ships will fit at lower tides even when fully loaded.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently raised the project's estimated cost 38 percent to a whopping $973 million. Mackie McIntosh, the Corps' chief of civil works in Savannah, said last month Georgia taxpayers — who have already put $260 million into the harbor deepening — will be expected to contribute about $20 million more.

"I support whatever's going to be necessary for us to complete this project in a timely fashion," Deal told reporters at the Savannah port. "And if that's what it takes, I think the citizens and the voters and the elected representatives in the General Assembly will be willing to do that extra part."

Deal has long referred to the Savannah harbor expansion as his top economic development priority. Dredging finally began in 2015 and is expected to continue for another five years. Supporters of the project want to avoid delays, especially now that the bigger ships aren't waiting.

After sailing through the Panama Canal, which finished a major expansion last year, the COSCO Development made its first East Coast stop this week at the Port of Virginia — one of only four U.S. ports on the Atlantic Ocean with the desired 50 feet (15 meters) of depth at low tide for larger cargo ships. From Savannah, the ship will head to the Port of Charleston in South Carolina, which plans to start its own deepening project this fall.

The giant ship navigated the Savannah River at high tide Thursday morning to ensure it would fit. Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said about 5,500 total containers of imports and exports were being unloaded and loaded onto the vessel — about five times the cargo Savanah handles for a typical ship. Six cranes were being used alongside the 1,200-foot (366-meter) ship.

With federal funding hard to get in recent years, Georgia paid its $260 million share upfront to get dredging started. The recent omnibus spending bill signed by President Donald Trump included $42.7 million for the Savannah harbor. A year ago, Deal and others complained that amount wasn't enough when President Barack Obama proposed it.

Deal said he's hopeful Trump will ask for a larger sum of federal dollars to keep the Savannah harbor deepening on schedule when more details of the president's fiscal 2018 budget are released. Deal also noted the Army Corps is expected to have more discretionary funding to put toward priority projects.

"The fact that we have taken the initiative with the state funding to start this deepening project should place us very high on the priority list," Deal said.