SAVANNAH, Ga.—"That's what it's all about—right behind me," says the U.S. Army's second highest-ranking civilian leader, Under Secretary Joseph W. Westphal, as he motions to the mammoth cranes, cargo containers, and semi-trucks bustling around him.
"That means American trade [and] American products going overseas. It means our economy is growing and improving—and that's the gateway to get it [our products] to other markets," he said.
Westphal was talking about the Port of Savannah—the nation's fourth busiest container port and second largest for exports.
The under secretary visited Savannah Sept. 4 to meet with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Georgia Ports Authority, Fort Stewart/Hunter Army Airfield, and the mayors of Savannah and Hinesville. Additionally, he took a helicopter tour of the port and surrounding wetlands and held a press conference with local news media.
A major purpose of his visit was to highlight the economic value of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP)—a plan to deepen the federal shipping channel from 42 feet to 47 feet to accommodate larger ships and increase shipping efficiencies.
As the lead federal agency for the SHEP, the Corps' Savannah District studied it for 13 years and—by working with state and federal partners and the public—designed an extensive engineering and environmental mitigation plan.
"I always say the United States is so unique in that it is the only country in the world where the U.S. Army is its chief public works agency doing this kind of work," Westphal said. "[They are] creating opportunities, building infrastructure, and restoring the environment to make these kinds of projects possible."
The SHEP was formally approved by the federal government in October 2012 and currently awaits a funding authorization from Congress before construction can begin.
At a total project cost of $652 million, the SHEP would yield an annual net benefit of $174 million to the nation throughout the life of the project. Specifically, for every $1 invested in the project, taxpayers will yield a benefit of $5.50.
"The Congress and the President would not be making this investment if there wasn't a huge return," Westphal said.
Westphal also mentioned the Vice President's plans to visit the Port of Savannah later this month, saying the visit indicates how important the SHEP is to the nation's economy.
Aside from economic benefits, the SHEP includes many environmental mitigation features, such as installing Speece Cones along the river to improve dissolved oxygen levels in the water. Plans also include the construction of a fish bypass upstream near Augusta, allowing sturgeon and other fish species to access historical spawning areas that are currently closed off.
Other mitigation features include the preservation of a Civil War ironclad, the CSS Georgia, which currently sits at the bottom of the river; and the acquisition of lands for the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.
Westphal mentioned the Army's commitment to mitigate environmental impacts associated with large-scale projects such as the SHEP and the need to balance environment and economy.
"It takes a long time, not only to get the funding but to do the work that's necessary to do this right," Westphal said. "And as we get this done and executed over the next few years, you will see tremendous increases in trade and it will have a very positive impact on our economy."
Learn more about the SHEP on the Corps Savannah District website at www.sas.usace.army.mil