Gas tax hike seen as way to dredge waterway

A boat is stuck on a shoal in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Some local officials advocate using state gas tax revenue to dredge the waterway. (provided)

An increase in the state gas tax that is being considered in Columbia could be used to provide much-needed funds for dredging the ailing Intracoastal Waterway, local officials said.

“I think the gas tax is basically a transportation tax so I do think it could justifiably be used for waterway dredging. I encourage our state leaders to research what has been done elsewhere along the waterway,” said Charleston County Councilman Dickie Schweers.

The Florida Inland Navigation District collects about $20 million annually in property taxes to pay for waterway maintenance in 12 counties.

North Carolina raises funds for waterway dredging through its gas tax and boater registration fees.

Gov. Nikki Haley, in her State of the State address Wednesday, expressed support for increasing South Carolina’s 26.75 cents per gallon gas tax by up to 10 cents over three years to fund roads if the state income tax is reduced from 7 percent to 5 percent.

Whether Haley would support spending gas tax money for waterway maintenance is unknown. As of late Friday afternoon, the governor’s office had not responded to phone and e-mail requests for comment on the issue.

McClellanville Mayor Rutledge Leland said that the shallow, muddy condition of the waterway at low tide keeps shrimp and fish boats moored at the docks.

“We have a (marine) road out here that certainly needs some help. The situation is not good. It’s on everybody’s mind,” he said.

County Council has designated $500,000 as seed money for waterway dredging if “substantial” matching funds are provided.

“We believe that Florida, North Carolina and more recently Charleston County have set an example on how to step up to assist in maintaining the waterway,” said Brad Pickel, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association executive director.

The waterway runs from Norfolk, Va., to Key West, Fla., a distance of about 1,200 miles. It was authorized in the 1939 Rivers and Harbors Act. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for its maintenance.

It is a travel route for the Coast Guard, barge traffic, commercial and charter fishing vessels, recreational and tour boats. A variety of products are shipped on the marine highway including fuel oil, fertilizers, wood, iron, steel, vegetables, produce and electrical machinery, according to the waterway association.

David Warren, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District, said he is informing Congress of the availability of the $500,000 in matching county money and seeking approval to spend it on the waterway.

Currently, the Corps has $500,000 in federal funds for waterway maintenance. Warren said it will be used for mosquito abatement, condition surveys and preparation of specifications and plans for shovel-ready projects if more money becomes available for dredging. About $3 million would be needed to dredge the worst spots in the county at McClellanville and at Breach Inlet between Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, he said.

The waterway was last dredged in South Carolina in 2010 using $4 million in economic stimulus funds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The waterway ideally is 12 feet deep but only a foot of water can be found in some areas when the tide is out. Boaters run aground routinely, officials said.

Leland said he planned to contact the governor’s office and legislators about the possibility of using some gas tax money for waterway dredging.

“It would seem appropriate,” he said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711