Georgia is well-known throughout the United States as a strong competitor for international business investment. Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola, AFLAC and Delta Air Lines are as synonymous with Georgia as sweet tea and peaches - and each year, the list of companies that call Georgia "home" grows longer.
Companies find Georgia an ideal state for business expansion, relocation or start up for several reasons. While measures that encourage job growth and the reduction of regulatory burdens are certainly incentives, our state's robust and internationally-reaching transportation infrastructure is also a large reason for business investment in Georgia.
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport provides an easy way for executives from all over the world to travel to not only our great state, but the southeast region of the United States. However, there are many capable smaller airports that can provide the same service and transport travelers much closer to the final destination.
One big advantage Georgia has over competing states in the southeast and throughout the nation is our ability to serve as a gateway for international commerce. Georgia's coastal region is home to one of the state's most important assets - the Georgia Ports.
Cargo ships from all over the world bring products and goods to the United States through this access point, and the benefit reaches far beyond just the physical ability to bring in large ships.
According to a 2012 report, the Port of Savannah, Port of Brunswick and several other smaller ports keep about 352,000 individuals employed both directly and indirectly. While people are directly hired to oversee day-to-day operations and assist with the loading and unloading of cargo, the indirect jobs come from vendors, contractors and even the local restaurants and shops patronized by Port employees and visitors. The Port of Savannah alone brings in an estimated $2.8 billion in state and local taxes and $52.6 billion in cargo each year.
Georgia cannot afford to lose this kind of positive economic impact.
In April 2013, the Georgia Ports Authority reported that 2.4 million tons of cargo was moved through Georgia ports - and this record-breaking number is expected to be shattered again within the near future.
The Port of Savannah is the fastest growing container port in the nation, but it is also the shallowest of all the major international ports. This is why future record milestones are causing a large amount of worry as the Port of Savannah rapidly outgrows itself.
Georgia realized back in the 1990s that the Port of Savannah would eventually be in this situation and has been pushing for many years to deepen the harbor from 42 to 47 feet - a project that is estimated to cost $626 million to complete.
To complicate matters, port expansions require federal approval and federal funding.
While the Port of Savannah received the green light from the federal government to move forward with harbor expansion, it is still waiting on $390 million in federal funds. Georgia has already set aside $231 million; just short of the 40 percent share required to be paid for by the state.
However, in April, President Obama released a proposed budget that only allocated $1.28 million for the project. This is a number far off from the estimated $70 to 100 million in federal funding needed to just begin construction.
It is also a disappointing move on our President's part since his administration has publicly admitted the urgent need to deepen the Port of Savannah.
Adding to the time crunch is the anticipated completion of the Panama Canal expansion in 2015. Once this project is completed, the Panama Canal will be able to accommodate the largest cargo ships in service. The Port of Savannah is currently too shallow to host these super-sized ships in port.
This position has led Gov. Nathan Deal to consider moving forward with the Port of Savannah expansion without the full amount of pledged federal funding.
Florida and South Carolina have decided to move forward with expansion projects despite the fact that both are still waiting on federal funds.
Considering the financial state of the federal government, it is quite possible that a federal reimbursement may never happen for Florida and South Carolina.
It may be time for Georgia to begin considering other alternatives to make up for the federal funding shortfall as well.
It should be noted that all hope for federal funding for the Port of Savannah expansion project is not lost. Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, remains positive on the subject and believes the project will receive a large funding boost in the federal FY 2015 budget.
Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have also teamed together to inform the federal government and Congress about the importance of the Port of Savannah deepening, proving that the issue isn't a bipartisan one. However, it is an issue that will greatly affect Georgia's economic investments and fiscal health.
As chair of the Senate Transportation committee, I have also been doing my part to support the dredging of the Port of Savannah.
In March, I participated in a lengthy discussion about the port expansion with Roberto Roy, the Minister for Panama Canal Affairs, and Gov. Deal.
Roy emphasized the importance of completing the Port of Savannah expansion in order to coincide with the completion of the Panama Canal expansion, and also explained how Panama Canal has lost business and revenue because the canal expansion remains unfinished.
What do you think about the Port of Savannah expansion project? This is a very important issue that has received a large amount of media coverage in the past several years, but it is also a complex issue.
I'm glad to answer any questions you have about the impact of the coastal ports on Georgia's economy or the harbor deepening project, so please feel free to call my office or send me an e-mail at any time.
Sen. Steve Gooch serves as Chairman of the Transportation Committee. He represents the 51st Senate District which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Union and White counties and portions of Forsyth and Pickens counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.