“To just invest in the ports is useless unless we can improve the roads and the connectivity throughout the state.”
— Jim Newsome, CEO, State Ports Authority
With its putative linkage to all economic development trends in South Carolina, is there a state-controlled economic asset more popular than the Port of Charleston? I doubt it.
And for those of us who think that’s a good thing, I say give Jim Newsome some leadership props. In just a few years, he’s gained the ears of the Legislature and the governor, offering a convincing case that the port is a golden publicly owned enterprise; and if Charleston Harbor channels can just be deepened from 45 to 50 feet, Charleston will once again dominate among South Atlantic ports.
Never mind that the Port of Savannah handles nearly twice as many containers as Charleston, Newsome’s message is all about the future. In a post-Panamax market, Charleston’s potential seems plainly better, given deeper channels and quicker huge-ship steaming times in a protected harbor so close to the open sea.
The state has gone all-in with Newsome’s strategies, setting aside up to $300 million in state funds to finance the federal depending project. That amount includes the $120 million federal share, just in case the feds falter in the commitment to fast-track the deepening to completion by 2020. That’s not just a minor miracle, it’s one remarkable leap toward progress. South Carolina governance is largely gripped by the absolutism of “no new taxes” for anything, not even investments in good infrastructure that might back up our airy pretentions as a state with superior infrastructure assets.
Last week at the inaugural S.C. Supply Chain Summit hosted by the College of Charleston School of Business, Newsome finally voiced the rest of the port’s development proposition. Speakers touted our state’s considerable potential for expanding global trade — and the role of the Port of Charleston in making it all happen. But Newsome offered up a smack of port planning absolutism — a major seaport is merely the apex of modal assets. Modern terminal facilities and deeper channels require equally modern and efficient highway and rail connectivity. Supply chain infrastructure is only as efficient as its weakest link.
A couple of years ago, a state highway commissioner described the Summerville to Columbia Interstate 26 segment as a “nightmare.” So in plain language that Gov. Nikki Haley and every member of the Legislature might ponder, what good is a port with 50-foot shipping channels served by 50-year-old infrastructure “nightmare”? None of this sounds like the “unparalleled infrastructure, five interstate highways, enhanced by another 41,000 miles of state-maintained highways” touted by the S.C. Department of Commerce. And it certainly is not the infrastructure Newsome and the Ports Authority board need to assure the logic of state investments in deeper channels and landside terminal facilities. Consider that the Authority’s post-Panamax strategy could produce a doubling of current port related truck traffic in seven to 12 years. The “nightmare” could become a wide-awake horror story of compounded public policy failures. Of course, the state’s crumbling highway system is not just about economic development impacts. It is also about public safety and reasonable public convenience. A system of roads and bridges that was acclaimed as among the best in the nation four decades ago is now ranked among the worse.
Our state needs about a billion dollars a year for long-deferred maintenance and the incremental needs of the nation’s fourth largest state roads system. At 16 cents per gallon, the state fuel levy hasn’t been increased since 1986. It generates about $550 million annually, but only $450 million of that is dedicated to roads and bridges.
The governor and the legislature know the score. Their challenge is how to work through political commitments to never raise taxes and to deal with the public’s mistrust of government to spend money wisely. There are bills pending that would raise the fuel tax and index it to inflation. Other bills would direct sales taxes on vehicles to road funding. Gov. Haley has talked about directing $100 million of unanticipated revenues to DOT projects.
Some legislative leaders are now talking about resisting all “Band-Aid” approaches.
“It’s time we face the realities of our roads and bridges and how we fund projects and how we make government accountable to the taxpayers,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said last week.
For so many compelling reasons, Sen. Leatherman is right. It’s time.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, served as head of the American Association of Port Authorities and as president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at email@example.com.