New water bill good news for South Carolina ports in Charleston, Georgetown

  • Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 4:46 p.m.
Charleston Harbor deepening is needed to accommodate big, heavy ships like the MSC Rita regardless of the tides. The Rita can transport the equivalent of about 8,100 20-foot-long shipping containers. Newer vessels are even larger. Buy this photo

The multimillion-dollar deepening of Charleston Harbor, as well projects at smaller ports like Georgetown, will be helped by a federal water resources bill that is next up for a vote in the Senate, U.S. Rep. Tom Rice said Tuesday.

The freshman lawmaker from South Carolina's 7th District served on the conference committee on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act and spoke with The Associated Press from his Washington office minutes after the U.S. House, by a 412-4 vote, approved the legislation. The bill is expected to be approved by the Senate later this week and then head to the president.

For the next seven fiscal years, it allocates 10 percent of Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund expenditures for improvements at smaller ports handling less than 1 million tons of cargo annually. The original House version allocated such money for only two years.

The trust fund brings in about $1.8 billion a year from port users.

"The Georgetown port is going to have to make its case and I will help with that with the (Army) Corps of Engineers on the merits of dredging the port," Rice said. "I think that's going to be an easy argument because the state of South Carolina has set aside funds to match federal funds."

It's expected to cost about $32 million to dredge the Georgetown port that is in his district.

The water bill authorizes spending on 26 waterway and harbor projects, including the $650 million deepening of the Savannah River shipping channel to the Georgia ports. It also allows the deepening of shipping channels in Charleston and other ports to be paid for with local money while seeking federal reimbursement later.

The Charleston project is expected to cost upward to $350 million and is being studied by the Army Corps of Engineers. A final decision from the agency is expected next year.

Both Savannah and Charleston want to deepen their channels to handle a new generation of larger containerships that will routinely call when the Panama Canal widening is completed next year.

Rice said that the water bill garnered bipartisan support in an era of partisan politics

"Everybody knows jobs are important and everybody wants to see our economy flourish. While we may not agree on exactly how to get that done, pretty much everybody agrees infrastructure is an important part of that," he said.

Jim Newsome, CEO of S.C.'s State Ports Authority applauded House passage of the bill, saying it meets key port priorities, "specifically a seamless transition into construction for the Charleston Harbor deepening project and the possibility to secure channel maintenance funding for the Port of Georgetown."

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