Congress this week will pass the Water Resources and Reform Development Act. This massive $27.4 billion package of civil works addresses a menu of pent-up demands for modernization of the nation's navigation system, and the compelling necessity to reform a ponderous and costly regulatory system for vetting projects. It also puts a series of major flood control projects on thresholds toward completion.
The legislation specifically authorizes 46 projects. Nary a one is in South Carolina. No navigation projects, no beach nourishment projects. Nada. But its language revising procedural review mandates and updating authorizations is a big deal for both the ports of Charleston and Savannah. The Georgia Ports Authority hopes the legislation resolves the administrative mess gripping its $650 million Savannah River deepening project. Deepening Savannah River channels to 47 feet has been a project in process for nearly 20 years. The Obama administration last year insisted that it get renewed congressional authorization because its scope and costs changed and expanded during the extended planning process.
And WRRDA 2014 clears some dangling issues related to the Charleston Harbor Deepening project, too, and codifies many of the quicker-track procedures the Corps of Engineers is applying as it evaluates the proposal to deepen Charleston channels from 45 feet to 50 feet or maybe even 52 feet.
Most of our state's congressional delegation were insistent advocates for reforming Corps procedures. And WRRDA 2014 qualifies as "reform" legislation. In fact, that second "R" in the 2014 version's acronym highlights that "reform" is very much part of the broad strategic objectives.
Back in the '80s, a major harbor deepening project would take 30 years to work through serial studies and regulatory reviews. The cast of characters would change and so would market demands. Costs inevitably would soar, as Savannah port folks can attest. That numbing process continued until two years ago when the Obama administration allowed the Corps of Engineers to apply some streamlining procedures. Charleston's "Post 45" project benefited immediately - with some notably good work by the Charleston District Corps of Engineers office.
State Ports Authority President/CEO Jim Newsome now anticipates hopefully that the Corps will issue an affirming report for the Charleston project in 2015. "Our project should move quickly without the 'traditional' delays related to federal funding cycles, he says."
The key is WRRDA 2014 language that clears the way for local assurers to finance construction in anticipation of federal funding. The Charleston project will cost $300 million at 50 feet and proportionately more at 52-feet. South Carolina has escrowed $300 million and would be ready for an immediate start if the Corps of Engineers formally clears the project - without further congressional authorization. Good news - this is an industry game-changer and Charleston, empowered by the state's escrowed funding could be the first port to benefit. Bad news - the project will likely cost more than the escrowed $300 million.
Last year, Newsome raised eyebrows when he declared the deepening project could be completed by 2018. Now folks are paying attention to the Charleston project as one the Corps is quick-tracking without shortcutting sound environmental and regulatory review. Newsome's 2018 timeline seems at least possible.
The American Association of Port Authorities has lobbied for decades to achieve a more ration-al and progressive project management process. WRRDA 2014 is a very good start, but not surprisingly, some environmental groups have warned - fairly - that faster processes can produce environmental disasters. AAPA also has lobbied incessantly for full federal funding of navigational channels maintenance to be extended from 45 feet to 50 feet. WRRDA provides this change and it means South Carolina will not have to share maintenance costs if and when Charleston Harbor channels are deepened to 50 feet.
For a nation fundamentally dependent on waterborne commerce and civil works that protect lives and nurture the environment, this package should be considered a timely investment. And WRRDA 2014 was broadly supported as it wended through its House and Senate votes and finally, its conference report. Its sponsors tout its void of those wretched "earmarks," and so far, the usual fuss about "pork barrel" politics has been muted.
Even 1st District Rep. Mark Sanford voted for WRRDA when it passed by a 417-3 vote. The legislation "... is vital to ensuring Charleston's Post-45 harbor deepening stays on schedule," said Sanford.
But authorizations are not appropriations, and that's the a point of political disconnects. Sanford didn't vote for the last omnibus appropriations bill that funded some needed Charleston Harbor work. Let's see how he votes when it's Congress' turn to match South Carolina's bold commitment to advance funds for the Charleston deepening project - and reimburse South Carolina for the federal share. That would be the "federal share" of a project to modernize a "federal" asset which in 2014 will serve a flow of commerce that among many other benefits, generates $1 billion annually in "federal" Customs revenues.
Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman, served as president/CEO of the American Association of Ports Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans from 1986-2003. He is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.