South Carolina ports chief Jim Newsome has been pushing for more federal spending on the nation’s commercial harbors by prioritizing the work and switching to a merit-based funding system.

On Wednesday he made his case before some of the elected officials in Congress who control the purse strings.

“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 told a Congressional panel charged with helping shape the nation’s freight policy and funding.

Newsome, chief executive officer of the State Ports Authority, was one of several transportation-industry officials who spoke in Washington, D.C., before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation.

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

The two-hour discussion included presentations about the nation’s intermodal system, including the growth of railway access as a way to cut truck traffic on the nation’s roadways.

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.

Officials have said there are funding problems because of the removal of earmarks from federal spending.

In the case of deepening Charleston Harbor to 50 feet from 45, the S.C. General Assembly has set aside $300 million for the project, just in case the U.S. government doesn’t contribute its share.

“The federal harbor system has not kept pace with the dramatic increase in size of ships,” Newsome said. “Going forward, it is vital that a viable strategy and process is established at the federal level to bring port capability in line with the handling requirements of such large ships.”

Last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced plans to push 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.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.