- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Congress gave final approval Thursday to a new spending limit for deepening the Savannah harbor that raises the project’s price tag to $706 million, an increase of 8 percent from just two years ago.

The new authorized cost for expanding the busy shipping channel to the Port of Savannah was contained in a sweeping water-projects bill that passed the Senate. Once signed into law by the president, the measure is expected to clear the last bureaucratic roadblock on the project. Georgia officials hope to see dredging begin by the end of the year.

“For a decade and a half, we have completed every task set before us to get this project done,” Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson said in a joint statement. “We have now cleared the last congressional hurdle, paving the way for the administration to give a green light to the state of Georgia to begin construction.”

The Army Corps of Engineers now says deepening the Savannah harbor will cost $54 million more than the agency’s last estimate in 2012. Inflation, higher fuel costs and final design details that boosted construction costs are the main reasons the price jumped from its previous estimate of $652 million, said Russell Wicke, an Army Corps spokesman in Savannah.

Like other East Coast ports, Savannah is scrambling for deeper water to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving via an expanded Panama Canal in 2015. The federal government gave final approval to dredging more than 30 miles of the Savannah River in 2012. But an outdated spending cap of $459 million placed on the project in 1999 essentially stalled it for a year and a half.

The bill that passed Thursday was a compromise reached by the House and Senate, which approved different versions last year. House lawmakers gave near-unanimous approval to the final version Tuesday.

“There’s nothing else really standing in the way,” said Rep. John Barrow, an Augusta Democrat. “It took a long time, but it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Congress working in a bipartisan fashion.”

Raising the spending limit comes with no guarantee of federal funding. To avoid further delays, Gov. Nathan Deal wants to spend $266 million state officials have already set aside for Georgia’s 40-percent share to get the dredging started. The federal government would be expected to fund its share later.

Those details will be laid out in a cost-sharing agreement between the state and the Army Corps, which will oversee construction. The White House refused to let the agency sign any agreement until Congress raised the spending limit.

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