The federal government needs to help improve the nation’s port infrastructures through a system of prioritizing tasks and merit-based appropriation of federal dollars.

That was the message Jim Newsome, CEO of S.C. State Ports Authority told a congressional panel this morning.

“As with other major transportation projects, harbor deepening, maintenance and infrastructure improvements should be treated as high-priority projects subject to streamlined approval and with a steady and reliable stream of funding,” Newsome said.

Newsome was among several transportation industry officials who testified this morning before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation.

The federal panel is charged with helping shape the nation’s freight policy and funding.

In addition to Newsome, the panel heard from FedEx founder and Chairman Fred Smith and Charles W. Moorman, chairman, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp.

The panel discussed issues such as challenges in the nation’s intermodal system.

In the case of the nation’s maritime infrastructure, several ports along the East and Gulf coasts are jockeying for federal dollars to deepen their shipping channels to accommodate larger ships once the Panama Canal is expanded in 2015.

The S.C. General Assembly already set aside $300 million for the project, in case the federal government doesn’t add its share

Newsome’s comments echoed similar thoughts recently made by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Last month, Graham said he is looking to push a legislation that would create a fund of as much as $20 billion to dredge ports to 50 feet within five years. The merit-based system for dredging ports on the East Coast would be based on certain criteria, such as economic impact and the population of area served.

Graham first floated a merit-based funding proposal about two years ago.

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