The proposed state budget, forged after intense disputes among legislators, includes one item that sailed through. The General Assembly committed $300 million to ensure that Charleston Harbor is dredged to 50 feet.
That is the same General Assembly that made its support for the port of Charleston very clear this spring. When the state Department of Health and Environmental Control reached the cockamamy conclusion that the port of Savannah’s deepening plan would not hurt water quality in the Savannah River, lawmakers voted almost unanimously to suspend the misguided agency’s authority over that particular issue.
Then they unanimously overrode a veto of that measure by Gov. Nikki Haley, who had unwisely intervened on behalf of the Savannah port’s DHEC application.
In its support of the Charleston port, the Legislature has rightly recognized the essential role the port plays in the state’s economic health. Presumably Gov. Haley, whose mantra is economic growth, will support the legislative commitment of funds for the Charleston harbor deepening.
If Charleston Harbor’s shipping channel is not dredged from its present 45 feet to 50 feet, it will not be able to serve the new generation of mammoth ships, expected to increase in numbers when the Panama Canal widening is finished in late 2014.
Savannah also is in the race for limited federal dredging dollars. Its project would cost $652 million.
So while Charleston’s $300 million dredging project ordinarily would be shared by the state ($180 million) and the feds ($120 million), the Legislature is not taking any chances. If for some reason the federal government fails to provide its expected share — which would be a grave mistake — the state will bear the burden.
Ideally, a different system for national port planning would have eliminated this budgeting uncertainty. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the Army Corps of Engineers to make a priority list of the ports that need dredging. The Corps’ report, released last week, talked about a critical need for dredging in Southern ports, but failed to rank them by need so that funding decisions could be based on merit, not politics.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and of the Review and Oversight Commission on the S.C. Ports Authority, said, “If we want our state to grow, if we want to welcome new jobs, if we want to succeed on the world stage, our port must stay competitive.”
Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called the Charleston deepening project “our state’s number one economic priority.”
Let’s hope that Gov. Haley agrees, and that she’s willing to support the necessary financial commitment to show it.
In a complex budgeting process, the state’s lawmakers got the port funding right. The federal government should do the right thing, too — approve the Charleston Harbor project and pay its share.
This year, the Legislature showed it is ready to do what it takes to keep our port strong and competitive. That commitment will be needed in future years for rail and road improvements as the new North Charleston port terminal opens for business.
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