A “pittance” of funding for harbor dredging: what now?

We’re all going to be reading and hearing a lot in the coming weeks and months about the Obama administration’s decision to include only a $600,000 “pittance” (the AJC’s characterization) in its 2011 budget for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project.

Wonks will want to look directly at the Corps of Engineers’ entire budget for 2011. You can take a look at the funded navigation projects on page 64, and you can also obviously search the pdf in a variety of ways for key words, which will show details.

Few of the major construction projects related to navigation are being funded at all, anywhere, and if you look closely at the details, some of the “funded” projects will not get nearly as much as they apparently require.

Welcome to 2011.

It’s going to be a while before we know if any of the following played a role in the project not being funded:

  • The opposition of politicians in South Carolina.
  • Serious questions about water quality, mitigation efforts, and other effects.
  • The aggressive political stance that many Georgia politicians have taken against the Obama administration specifically and the federal government generally.

It might just be that the Obama team is unconvinced that any of the East Coast harbor projects deserve at this point to be chosen by the federal government as winners in the competition for larger ships once the Panama Canal expansion is finished in 2014. Studies are not complete; as noted by the AP recently, the Corps has never considered the individual projects within the context of a larger national strategy.

So now what?

I have a hard time imagining our generally dysfunctional state legislature would push the project ahead with a big investment of state dollars or with the sale of bonds, but it’s possible. If we plunked down the needed $100 million this year, maybe the federal government would support the project down the road. Maybe not, in which case the state might have to find another $300 million on its own.

Members of the Georgia congressional delegation, many of whom consider themselves conservatives intent on dramatic cuts in federal spending, could try to get the funding into the budget via earmarks. But I don’t think that would work, especially with so much political resistance from major politicians in South Carolina. Georgia conservatives who attempt to use earmarks to restore that funding would likely be crucified by tea party activists and the conservative blogosphere generally.

FWIW, Jim Galloway at the AJC thinks that the very presence of the $600,000 line item in the budget for permitting and other initial costs might be enough to prevent the project from technically being considered an earmark, which could open the door to a dramatic increase in funding without anyone having to mutter “earmark.”

But I don’t think many taxpayers will give a free pass to that logic hypocrisy.

Proponents of harbor deepening also have to contend with the growing number of questions from an increasingly skeptical public who have not been convinced that they have heard all the environmental and economic arguments required to come to a clear consensus.