Shuster proposes tapping port fund

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn talk Wednesday about federal funding for dredging Charleston Harbor.

Several ports along the East Coast and Gulf regions are competing for limited federal funds to deepen shipping lanes for larger container vessels from an expanded Panama Canal in 2015.

To help seek a solution in funding for such multimillion projects, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, toured the Port of Charleston and met with local officials and manufacturers on Wednesday.

Shuster, R-Pa., said he is proposing changing policy and tapping into the nation’s Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which collects roughly $1.8 billion each year, but half is routinely used by other federal agencies such as the Department of Energy.

“If you were to dedicate all that funding into harbor maintenance, expanding and dredging ports you probably would have all of the money needed,” Shuster said.

Charleston was the latest stop on Shuster’s nationwide tour of regions throughout the country, discussing ways to streamline processes to modernize seaports and improve the nation transportation system.

Officials have said there are funding problems because of the removal of earmarks from federal spending.

In the case of deepening Charleston Harbor to 50 feet from 45, the S.C. General Assembly has set aside $300 million for the project, just in case the U.S. government doesn’t contribute its share.

The uncertainty of federal funding has lawmakers seeking solutions for funding port programs without earmarks.

In March, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced plans to push legislation that would create a fund of as much as $20 billion 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.

Graham first floated a merit-based funding proposal about two years ago.

Shuster was joined Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

Clyburn said the deepening of Charleston Harbor is an “investment,” which grows jobs and benefits the nation.

“This is a $150 million to $160 million investment to an economy in this region of the country and to say we are not going to meet our obligation and have the economy falter as a result of that doesn’t make a lot sense,” he said. “The return on this investment is immeasurable.”

Shuster’s visit also comes just days after Jim Newsome, chief executive of the State Ports Authority, spoke in Washington, D.C., before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Panel on 21st Century Freight Transportation.

The congressional panel is charged with helping shape the nation’s freight policy and funding.

Newsome urged the panel to streamline federal spending on the nation’s commercial harbors by prioritizing the work and switching to a merit-based funding system.