SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The mayor of Savannah got a chance to lobby President Barack Obama for his support on deepening the waterway to the city's booming seaport.
Mayor Edna Jackson was among 14 U.S. city leaders who met with the president at the White House on Monday. She said Obama gave each of them one minute to tell him about pressing issues back home. Jackson used her time to plug the $600 million port expansion.
"I told him about the importance of the deepening of the harbor because we're 25 percent below the poverty level in Savannah. It's all about job creation in our community," Jackson said Tuesday in a phone interview from Washington, where she and other mayors were attending a conference of the National League of Cities.
Like other East Coast states, Georgia is scrambling for federal funding and permits to deepen the Savannah River by 6 feet to accommodate supersized cargo ships expected to arrive via the Panama Canal once it finishes a major expansion in 2014. Savannah has the nation's fourth busiest container port, but officials fear losing business if its shipping channel remains too shallow.
The mayor said she couldn't remember Obama's exact response, but she found him to be supportive overall.
"He was quite aware of the harbor deepening and he also realized this is not just affecting Savannah, but all of Georgia," Jackson said.
Obama included $2.8 million for the Savannah harbor expansion in his proposed budget last month, and he helped secure $600,000 in federal funding last year.
Still, that's far from the $105 million from Washington that Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and port officials have sought to fund the first year of construction. Deal has made expanding the Savannah harbor a top priority for improving Georgia's economy. Overall, port officials need about $360 million in federal funds, with the state paying for the rest.
"The governor thinks that Mayor Jackson used her one minute with the president effectively and served her constituents well," said Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson. "We've heard the transportation secretary discuss his support for the project, and it's great to hear that the president agrees with that."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Savannah's port last November and gave the harbor deepening one of its biggest endorsements, saying simply: "It has to happen."
Georgia Ports Authority executive director Curtis Foltz also praised Savannah's mayor doing her part to keep Georgia's port on Obama's mind.
"The mayor's endorsement of the (harbor expansion) to the president is encouraging," Foltz said in a statement.
Port officials plan to seek permits to allow construction to begin after the Army Corps of Engineers releases final studies on the project, expected later this spring. Port officials hope to finish the harbor deepening in 2016.
However, court challenges filed in South Carolina and opposition from the neighboring state's lawmakers are threatening to stall the project. The Savannah River is shared by Georgia and South Carolina, where opponents of the Savannah deepening say it would cause unacceptable environmental damage. Also, the port at Charleston, S.C., is one of Savannah's biggest competitors.