CHARLESTON — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham says the nation is beginning to move toward a national vision for its ports that will have to handle a generation of larger containerships that will soon dominate world trade.
Graham says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a wakeup call to Congress last month with a report outlining the nation's coastal and inland port needs. The administration in recent days designated seven projects at five ports as significant and promised to streamline federal studies so the work is done sooner.
Those projects include deepening the shipping channels in both Charleston and Savannah, Ga.
The administration's move “is a significant step toward a national vision that has been lacking,” Graham said, adding the nation needs a broader picture of its port needs.
“The system is broken and unless you change the system we will never have a modern port infrastructure to compete with the Middle East and China,” said Graham, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “We either get our act together or we lose market share.”
The corps report that was requested by Congress and released last month said the nation needs a strategic plan to handle harbor projects. It said ports in the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico are expected to experience the greatest impact from the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014 to handle the larger ships.
Ports in that region along will need about $5 billion to deepen their shipping channels, it said.
Graham said the report shows that Congress must look at port needs “in a visionary way” as it moves away from the old method of using earmarks to pay for local projects with little concern of how those projects meet national needs.
“Our job is not just Charleston,” he said. “Our job is the county as a whole. The good news for Charleston is it can complete with anybody because God has given us a very good harbor.”
The president issued an executive order in March to have the Office of Management and Budget oversee efforts to smooth the permitting and review process for infrastructure projects. So the $300 million Charleston project, which wasn't even in the president's budget two years ago, is now a national priority.
Aaron Ellis, a spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities, said it's significant that the seven projects designed by the administration for expedited studies are all port projects.
“It says a lot that all seven were related to supporting America's seaports,” he said. “What that says to us is that the president and the administration recognize the importance of port-related infrastructure and what it does to more freight efficiently, reduce costs to consumers and create jobs.”
Charleston, along with Savannah, Ga., Miami and several Gulf Coast ports currently have deepening projects being planned. The corps study said the target depth is 50 feet for the so-called post-Panamax ships, which the report noted will represent 62 percent of the world's container ship capacity by 2030.
Getting the money for such projects is another challenge. Graham says it could cost $20 billion but “in a budget of $3 trillion, that's not a whole lot.”
“If you fund them all 100 percent you would solve the issue,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, whose district in includes Charleston. “If the projects are relevant to economic outcomes and they are important to the viability of the country, why would we not fund them appropriately?”
The corps is already streamlining some of its work and announced earlier this month the $300 million Charleston Harbor deepening could be completed by 2020 – four years earlier than originally projected. The administration announcement is expected to shave still another year off that.
Charleston District Engineer Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne said the corps has involved resource agencies, the public and other groups, such as the harbor pilots, earlier in the study process, saving time and money.
“The sooner you get all the stakeholders to the table, I think that makes for a much smoother and streamlined process,” said Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who said reviews can be complete without taking forever.
“I think everyone supports efficient reviews,” he said. “We certainly don't think environmental reviews and evaluation of what alternatives are out there to save taxpayer money and reduce impacts on the public health and the environment mean interminable delays.”