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Report: Southeast, Gulf need deeper port harbors

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — U.S. seaports in the Southeast likely need up to $5 billion to deepen their shipping channels so they can trade with supersized cargo ships expected to arrive soon through an expanded Panama Canal, a federal agency said Thursday in a report to Congress.

Lawmakers asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine improvement needs among the nation’s ports as local governments scramble for federal funds to deepen their harbors to make room for a growing fleet of giant commercial ships. The East Coast only has three ports — New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. — with waterways deep enough to accept the fully loaded ships regardless of tides. The Southeast, forecast for the nation’s heaviest growth in population and trade, remains too shallow from Virginia to south Florida and across the Gulf to Texas.

The need for expanding port capacity “is likely to be most critical along the U.S. Southeast and Gulf coasts,” the report said. That’s because no shipping channels are at least 50 feet deep, which will be required for the ships — many from China and other Asian countries — that will begin using the Panama Canal after a major expansion is completed by the end of 2014.

Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and Miami on the Southeast coast as well as several ports in the Gulf are already undertaking harbor deepening projects, though none have advanced beyond studies to actual dredging. In April, the Corps completed a 12-year study on the Port of Savannah — the nation’s fourth busiest container port — which wants $652 million in taxpayer funds to deepen more than 30 miles of river.

The Corps said 17 such projects are being studied overall, and the cost of harbor expansions across the Southeast would likely be $3 billion to $5 billion.

“Strategically, we need to find a bucket of money to fund the projects that need to happen to keep our nation competitive,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, which is seeking final permits and funding to start deepening the Savannah harbor next year.

The budget crisis has made federal funding for port projects extremely tight, especially since Congress and President Barack Obama for the past two years have sworn off so-called “earmark” spending that was used to fund such projects in the past.

The Army Corps report said current funding levels for port improvements won’t cover all the projects that should be done. If Congress won’t increase the agency’s funding for harbor projects, the report said, then perhaps state governments and private companies such as shipping lines should be required to pay a greater share.

Another alternative would do away with the current cost-sharing system. Ports would include the cost of deepening in the fees they charge shippers and could borrow from a federal infrastructure bank for major projects.

“As long as every port and every federal waterway is treated fairly, then I think anything’s probably on the table,” Foltz said. “But we need to find a funding source to make sure our ports remain competitive.”

The report does not make any recommendations on which projects should be ranked before others. The request for the study from Congress said it should not “impede nor delay” harbor and inland waterway projects already authorized by Congress.

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Bruce Smith reported from Charleston, S.C.

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