Harbor dredging prospects brightening

Evergreen arrives at the Port of Charleston. (File)

After some rough sailing, the prospect of deepening Charleston Harbor is finally on a steady course.

The budget the Senate is considering this week recognizes the project’s value to the state with an allocation of $180 million that would serve as the state’s match.

And last month, the Senate approved a bill allowing South Carolina to borrow $120 million for the deepening project if the federal government doesn’t pay its share.

While that action underscores the significance of the port to South Carolina, it would be a mistake to suggest that the port is useful only to the state. It is a vital link to commerce that serves the eastern part of the United States. As such, it deserves to have the federal government do its part.

By recommending $3.5 million to study deepening Charleston Harbor, President Obama and the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee are putting some of the responsibility for the project where it belongs — with the federal government.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was on the mark when he said that “the Port of Charleston is our economic gateway to the world.” The nation needs an accessible, efficient deep-water port on the Southeast coast, and Charleston’s fills the bill. For now.

When the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2014, the shipping industry is expected to introduce mammoth vessels, which can carry larger loads and thus reduce the number of trips necessary. Those ships require a 50-feet deep channel. Charleston Harbor’s is 45 feet, so port officials want to dredge.

Securing money to study the project, as required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hasn’t been so easy in recent months. Ports had traditionally relied on earmarks for funding, and Republicans were taking a stand against them. The congressional delegation, led by Sen. Graham, made it happen, and laid the groundwork for what could be a more efficient funding process in the future.

If Sen. Graham’s concept works out, the Corps of Engineers will assess the nation’s port needs and recommend what work should be done where, based on hard data instead of whose congressional delegation has the most political influence. That would allow for a more systematic and coherent approach to spending scarce federal dollars, and it would avoid costly duplication.

Local officials are confident that the Port of Charleston would compare favorably to other area ports, and fare well in a competition for federal dollars.

Further, Sen. Graham reports that the Energy and Water Appropriations Act for 2013 includes $20.4 million for operation and maintenance of Charleston’s navigable waterways. Georgetown will be eligible for some of $30 million dedicated for small harbors. And Folly is scheduled to receive $400,000 to study beach renourishment.

As South Carolina’s industrial base continues to expand, the Panama Canal opens to larger vessels and, eventually, commerce picks up nationally, Charleston needs to be ready to meet the needs.

The state knows that, as its $180 million budget allocation demonstrates. The $3.5 million federal commitment is a good sign that the country knows it, too.