Dredging can be win-win-win for Southeast ports

If you’re a fan of harbor deepening then you couldn’t have asked for a better gift than the shout-out President Barack Obama gave Charleston on The Tonight Show.

As part of a thorough and wide-ranging conversation with Jay Leno last week, the president mentioned the critical need to dredge the port here as well as those in Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla. in preparation for the bigger post-Panamax ships that are coming after the deepening of the Panama Canal in 2015.

Yes, 2015. That used to sound like a long way off. Not anymore. In fact, in government project terms, it’s bordering on immediate. That’s the same time frame when the Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to make its recommendations about dredging Charleston’s port.

True, this isn’t the first time the president has mentioned the ports, not even the first time this year. But local port officials said that any chance to remind the American public — who after all did elect this Congress — that this matters to all of them is a good thing.

“Dredging is critical,” said Pam Zaresk, president of the Maritime Association of South Carolina. “It’s exciting that it’s in the national consciousness.”

Likewise, SC Ports Authority president and CEO Jim Newsome was happy for the exposure.

“We are grateful for the attention and the President’s recognition that the Southeast’s ports are critically important to job creation and our nation’s economy,” Newsome said in a statement. “The President’s initiative to double exporting activity can only be achieved by modernizing our seaports and related infrastructure.”

National impact

Now, it’s true, recent talk about the Savannah port — at least in Charleston — has not been very complimentary or cooperative.

But, Zaresk said the real focus should be on how the ports affect the economy.

“The average person doesn’t sit down and look at something on their desk and say ‘If it wasn’t for a port this wouldn’t be in front of me,’” Zaresk said. But that’s exactly what we should be doing.

“I do believe that — there’s always going to be competition amongst the ports,” Zaresk said. “What’s really important is that the issue is understood of how important it is to the nation.”

Though she admittedly holds a strong bias toward our local port, Zaresk said upgrading all the ports is important. “If the playing field is somewhat level, we all get our fair share of the dredging and the money. All of us that are involved in the maritime industry in this state feel that we’re more than up to those challenges.”

All for one, one for all

Newsome singled out Jim Clyburn and Lindsey Graham for their original and continuing commitment to the project, as well as Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

South Carolina’s Legislature is setting aside funds toward the estimated $300 million in construction costs. So as long as everyone stays the course, when 2015 and 2016 come, we should all be ready.

Maybe it’s time to end the bickering and embrace the opportunity and promise that dredging holds.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.

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