The Georgia Department of Transportation said Wednesday it has chosen a general contractor to oversee a $189 million project to raise Savannah's towering suspension bridge so that larger cargo ships can pass underneath and reach one of the nation's busiest seaports.

Maintenance and construction on the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge are expected to begin in the first quarter of 2025, the DOT said in a statement announcing that Kiewit Infrastructure South Co. will serve as general contractor.

Built in 1991, the bridge spans the Savannah River at the Georgia-South Carolina state line. Cargo ships passing Savannah's downtown riverfront must sail underneath the bridge to reach the Port of Savannah, the fourth-busiest U.S. port for cargo shipped in containers.

Officials with the Georgia Ports Authority began more than five years ago calling for the bridge to be replaced, saying its 185 feet (57 meters) of clearance will eventually be too low to accommodate growing classes of cargo ships.

The DOT's solution, at least for now, is to replace and shorten the bridge's massive cables to raise its center span up to an additional 20 feet (6 meters). The agency says most of the work can be done without closing the bridge to traffic.

"That's something we're confident can be accomplished in a safe fashion," said Kyle Collins, a Georgia DOT spokesman, "though there will have to be some temporary closures."

The DOT's board signed off on the Savannah bridge raising a year ago, seeking to hire a general contractor early so the firm could consult on the project while it's still in the design phase.

Kiewit Infrastructure South was awarded $6.5 million for pre-construction services, Collins said. The company will provide the DOT with additional costs for construction once there's a final design. The current total cost estimate is $189 million, Collins said.

Griff Lynch, president and CEO of the Georgia Ports Authority, has called out the Talmadge Bridge as an impediment to future growth at Savannah's port, which handled 5.4 million container units in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The authority is spending $1.9 billion to grow Savannah's cargo handling capacity. Lynch says that investment needs to be met with taxpayer-funded infrastructure upgrades.

Less than two years after the Army Corps of Engineers finished a $973 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel, the authority is already seeking congressional authorization to study another round of dredging.

Meanwhile, even as it prepares to raise the Talmadge Bridge, the Georgia DOT is simultaneously studying a long-term project to either replace it altogether with an even taller bridge or build a tunnel allowing cars to travel beneath the river. A September 2022 report estimates costs could reach $2 billion.

Unless Georgia lawmakers intervene, the bridge will still be named for Talmadge, a segregationist who served three terms as Georgia's governor between 1933 and 1942. Over the past decade, Savannah's city council and others including the Girl Scouts of the USA, which was founded in Savannah, have sought to strip Talmadge's name from the bridge.

In written responses to public comments on the bridge project last August, the DOT noted that the power to name roads and bridges rests with Georgia's state legislature.