Picking up the port pace

Charleston is among five ports whose infrastructure projects will be expedited, the Obama administration said.

The Obama administration’s decision to expedite the deepening project for the port of Charleston is an encouraging acknowledgment of its value to the economy of the state, the region and the nation.

Now Congress should expedite its efforts to transform the federal funding process so that port infrastructure improvements can be brought to fruition.

And a new multi-agency Navigation Task Force, created by the White House, should expedite its work to devise a way for port projects to be selected for funding in priority order based on their merit.

Wednesday’s White House announcement puts Charleston even closer to accommodating mammoth container ships coming on in 2014 or 2015 when the Panama Canal widening is complete. Instead of 2024, study, design and dredging Charleston Harbor to 50 feet could be finished by 2019 or 2020.

It can’t come too soon. Charleston is in a race with other U.S. ports for the post-Panamax ship business.

While the port here recently announced some profitable new shipping business partners, plans to improve ports in Savannah, Miami and Jacksonville also have been expedited, and more are expected to be.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has taken a lead in advocating for the port of Charleston, credited the success with strong bipartisan efforts by Gov. Nikki Haley, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the state’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly, which recently set aside $300 million for the deepening project in case the federal government is tardy in allocating its share. Sen. Graham said that show of support should help him as he continues to push for reforms.

He added that there is still a lot of work to do before the nation’s ports — inland and coastal — are up to speed. In addition to a merit selection model for federal projects, he would like to see regulations adjusted so that the approval process for those projects doesn’t take so long, while still making sure that it is environmentally sensitive.

Chris DeScherer, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that his organization remains concerned about the deepening of the Savannah River.

The plan has been criticized for the environmental damage it could do, for the price tag (twice the cost of deepening Charleston Harbor) and for its questionable economic benefits.

Indeed, the Savannah port project poses problems that are troubling even if Charleston were not in competition with it.

All the more reason for the Navigation Task Force to figure out a better way — one whereby projects are chosen because they will produce the best results at a reasonable cost.

But in the meantime, the State Ports Authority’s ability to move ahead more quickly on the deepening plan for Charleston Harbor is worth celebrating.