In praise of the port

The Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant is the Port of Charleston’s busiest container hub.

The Port of Charleston is an example of how investing in infrastructure benefits the U.S. economy, Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday during a visit to the Charleston region.

Biden, who spoke at State Ports Authority’s Wando Welch Terminal about the benefits of the proposed Grow America Act to fund infrastructure, specifically cited a federal grant that will help pay for improvements that will allow the Mount Pleasant cargo hub to handle larger, heavier cargo ships.

The number of those ships calling on Charleston is expected to increase dramatically after the Panama Canal is expanded by next year.

The SPA was awarded $10.7 million in 2014 to help pay for major upgrades to the busy container facility off Long Point Road. The money is from a federal program called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER.

The SPA is investing another $70 million on the nearly three-year overhaul to beef up the 237-acre cargo hub on the Wando River.

The project is expected to start this spring. It will include new pilings to strengthen the wharf and taller cargo cranes to unload the bigger ships.

“This terminal already welcomes some of these ships, but your wharf is only designed for ships that are about a third of that size,” Biden told a group of port officials and local business and political leaders.

“That means added strain on your pilings, added strain on the beams, mounting structural damage every single time one of these ships come into port, let alone the weight and capacity of the cranes that load and unload these ships,” Biden said. Without the planned improvements, he said, the ships could cause “long-term damage, which left unchecked, could cripple the commerce that goes through the Port of Charleston.”

Biden was joined by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-SC, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and ports chief Jim Newsome.

Foxx said port officials have taken a proactive approach toward infrastructure, including plans to deepen Charleston’s shipping channel to 52 feet to accommodate the heavier vessels. Port officials are hoping to get approval for federal funding of the project.

“When you heard the Panama Canal was being expanded ... you began to craft a plan to expand this port,” Foxx said. “To build bigger cranes and more quickly move freight and accommodate larger vessels. It’s a plan that’s going to let businesses lower shipping costs and have a competitive advantage in the global economy. In a word, it’s about jobs and creating a better future.”

Foxx is making a five-state tour to promote an Obama administration proposal to spend almost $500 billion over the next six years to fix the nation’s infrastructure. Biden joined him in South Carolina on Wednesday and will also attend an event with Foxx on Thursday in Charlotte.

During a Wednesday stop with Biden at Owens Steel in Columbia, Foxx said congested roads and ports are adding to the costs for Owens and other companies.

The proposed Grow America Act would cut the federal corporate tax to 28 percent from 35 percent while closing loopholes that Biden said allow some companies to pay nothing. The act also would levy a 14 percent tax on foreign earnings by U.S. companies, including the Boeing Co., which makes Dreamliner airplanes at its North Charleston campus.

Sanford said he can’t support the proposed act because of the impact it will have on Boeing and other U.S. companies.

“Boeing has major questions about that strategy,” Sanford said. “It would amount to a tax hike for Boeing.”

Sanford added that he expects Congress ultimately will approve funding for the harbor-deepening project.

“We will get what we need because of (the port’s) well-deserved reputation for efficiency,” Sanford said, adding that the Port of Charleston “is not just a South Carolina resource, it’s a national resource.”

Biden did not take questions from reporters and did not mention politics in his remarks. But the visit by the potential 2016 Democratic presidential contender to South Carolina, which holds an early primary, was not lost on Republicans.

“Last week it was Iowa, this week it’s South Carolina. Looks like Vice President Biden has already begun his 2016 campaign — and is doing so on the taxpayers’ dime,” according to a statement released by Ali Pardo, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

It was Biden’s second visit to the South Carolina ports in the past year and a half. He visited in September 2013 to discuss the harbor deepening.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_