Jim Newsome is asking for federal dollars to deepen commercial harbors. But he’s also proposing a way to ensure that those dollars are well spent.

The president and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority advocated Wednesday in Washington, D.C., for federal funding to be awarded based on the merits of the projects being considered.

He also talked of a need for a steady and reliable funding source for priority projects like the deepening of Charleston Harbor from 45 feet to 50 feet.

That accountable and cost-effective method of awarding federal funds is being championed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Mr. Graham also wants Congress to establish a $20 billion fund dedicated to such dredging projects in the next five years.

When the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2015, more and larger ships will be able to use it, so more and larger ships could use the port of Charleston and others on the East Coast.

A number of ports are lining up for federal dollars so they can deepen their shipping channels to the 50-foot depth the largest ships require.

Such projects used to be funded by earmarks, but they are currently not an option. So now ports will need to compete for funds in the federal budget.

Sen. Graham’s concept makes good sense, particularly in light of efforts to reduce the budget. Instead of paying for projects randomly, put them in priority order. Fund the most important ones first — those that will give the biggest bang for the buck. Look for the ones that will do the most to enhance shipping, which is vital to the country’s economy.

And, of course, check the bottom line. Some projects are much more expensive for others. Do they warrant the extra money?

The South Carolina General Assembly set aside $300 million to cover the Charleston Harbor dredging if Congress fails to do so. That is a wise move, given the importance of the port to the state and region. It is one of South Carolina’s key economic drivers.

The Legislature’s commitment also sends a message to Congress that this work is vital.

But it would be a pity if Congress were to shirk its fiscal responsibility to care for the nation’s ports and transportation infrastructure.

One area of interest for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is the growth of rail as a way to reduce truck traffic on the nation’s roadways. The nation’s ports are part of that picture. It is through ports like Charleston that goods carried on trucks and trains are imported and exported.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has assured port officials that sequestration cuts will not jeopardize the Charleston Harbor project. It is still on an expedited schedule.

If the country is going to grow its stature as an exporter of goods, it will need strong ports. Congress’s investment should help make that happen.