Harbor solution promised: Graham, Scott say they will tie up government to get money for dredging study

Senator Lindsey Graham (left) talks about plans to get the funds needed to start the deepening of Charleston Harbor process, as Congressman Tim Scott listens Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott on Tuesday promised to hem up the federal government until it addresses the Port of Charleston's relatively low-budget need to move forward with harbor deepening this year.

The two South Carolina Republicans spoke at the State Ports Authority's downtown headquarters, saying they are hopping mad that the spending parameters for the rest of the financial year lack the $50,000 necessary to move a dredging study forward in 2011.

Previously estimated at $400,000, the number was reduced dramatically because of the limited time left in the financial year to begin what's known as a "feasibility study" for harbor deepening.

That step becomes more and more crucial as the 2014 completion of the Panama Canal expansion draws near, bringing with it a larger fleet of cargo ships.

"If we do not get the study done this year, we lose another year," Graham said. He pointed out that President Barack Obama hopes to double U.S. exports in five years.

"I share that goal. I know Tim does too," Graham said. "How much money did the Obama administration set aside to make this port deeper to expand export opportunities in the Southeast? Not one penny in 2011 or '12."

He added that Congress made job creation its top priority and then asked, "If that's true, how could you not set aside $50,000 to allow the study to go forward to make this port a job creator in the future?"

Graham promised that he and Scott would "do everything we can to tie the Senate in knots to make sure that this issue is adequately addressed." Scott said he planned to speak with other lawmakers to push for the funding, and Graham said he hopes to attach the $50,000 to another bill, if that fails.

"I'm going to make it very difficult to do business as usual in the Senate," Graham said. That includes stalling nominations and bills working their way through Congress.

Scott campaigned on the idea of a merit-based, competitive process for handling the country's assets. He called more than 100 people over the weekend to rally support and said Tuesday, "This is unacceptable."

Graham last month said he would introduce legislation that would provide a merit-based approach for doling out highly sought-after federal dollars. His plan calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review which channels make the most sense to deepen to 50 feet.

State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern emphasized that deepening Charleston Harbor to 50 feet from 45 would cost less, at about $350 million over 10 years, than competing ports in the Southeast. He also said the project makes good business sense.

"We provide the most bang for the buck," Stern said. "There's no better situation than South Carolina in the United States."

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594.