Biden pushes for deepening Charleston Harbor

Vice-president Joe Biden speaks at the South Carolina State Ports Authority Columbus Street terminal Monday. (Brad Nettles/ 9/16/13

There's a lot commerce — and jobs — dependent on five feet of clay, sand and other sediment being extracted from Charleston Harbor to accommodate larger cargo ships.

That's why Vice President Joe Biden gave stern orders Monday for officials to get it done but stopped short of outlining how the federal government would help fund the project.

“We've got to find the resources for it because it pays multiple dividends for the economy, the people of South Carolina and the country,” Biden said.

Biden made the comment to a crowd of roughly 300 local and state officials at the Columbus Street Terminal in downtown Charleston. The vice president was in Charleston on the second leg of a three-city East Coast port tour, speaking about the need for improving the nation's transportation infrastructure for exports and competitive needs.

“Every time we invest in infrastructure as Democrats or as Republicans, every time we have done it, the economy grows and it grows good, decent-paying job,” Biden said.

The vice president was accompanied by Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.

Biden said the nation's infrastructure of highways and ports is behind other nations.

“They're way ahead of us,” he said. “It's ridiculous and we can't let it stand.”

The vice president's trip to the Lowcountry started with a brief tour of the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. He toured the facility with S.C. State Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome and chatted and shook hands with longshoremen who took a break from unloading a Hapag-Lloyd container ship at the dock.

Newsome said Biden's visit showed the Obama administration is committed to seeing Charleston Harbor deepened.

“This visit was another step further for the project, and we were glad to have him here,” Newsome said.

The Port of Charleston is the deepest port between Norfolk and Miami and can handle large ships at high tide, but it needs a deeper shipping channel — 50 feet from its current depth of 45 — to ensure around-the-clock access.

The project to deepen Charleston Harbor is estimated to be between $300 million to $350 million, with the cost to be shared by South Carolina and the federal government.

Several ports are deepening shipping lanes for larger vessels to flow through an expanded Panama Canal, a $5 billion project to be completed in 2015.

But Washington has had trouble finding money for such projects amid budget battles focused on cutbacks and deficit reduction.

That, in turn, has South Carolina competing with Georgia and other ports for limited federal funds for deepening shipping lanes.

Charleston's project is currently in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is scheduled to release initial information from its feasibility study for the project next year.

On Monday, Biden said he wasn't looking to downplay the Army Corps study, but the answer is obvious.

“You better deepen it to 50 feet and it better happen or guess what, you will be left behind,” Biden said. “That's because other ports along the East Coast will go ahead and do it.”

Biden's speech prompted criticism from some Republicans, who said the vice president didn't address the largest issue: funding.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse said he was disappointed Biden didn't speak about how the federal government would help.

“He was long on promises but short on solutions, and there was no mention of any revenue stream,” Limehouse said.

Still, South Carolina is ready to dredge, regardless. The Legislature set aside $300 million last year to cover the entire cost of the Charleston project, just in case the U.S. government doesn't come through.

After the speech, Haley said she was happy Biden voiced commitment to getting the deepening project done.

“What you saw today is the vice president put his money where his mouth is,” she said. “He said absolutely that in order for us to continue to see jobs come in and to see South Carolina grow and the American economy grow, we've got to deepen the Port of Charleston.”

Haley added that she will continue to be hard on the federal delegation to assure there is some help with funding.

“What we need to do is make sure they continue to push, and I think we've got the confirmation from Vice President Biden that he will also continue to push,” she said.

Haley added that she was in support of a plan by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would create a fund to dredge ports to 50 feet within five years. The merit-based system for dredging ports on the East Coast would be based on certain criteria, such as economic impact and the population of the area served.

Biden was also scheduled to visit Port of Savannah on Monday.

Georgia Ports Authority is seeking to have a 30-mile-plus stretch of the Savannah River deepened from to 47 feet from 42.

The vice president visited the Port of Baltimore last week to award a $10 million federal grant to improve waterside access at the port.

President Barack Obama included Savannah and Charleston last year on a list of port projects deemed worthy of expediting.

Charleston Harbor's dredging is expected to be completed as early as 2019.

Newsome has said there are hopes the dredging can be completed as early as 2018. That would have the deepening coincide with the opening of the Navy Base Terminal, a new container port the SPA is building at the former Navy base in North Charleston. The $700 million new terminal is the largest piece of the SPA's $1.3 billion capital improvement program.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 843-937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.