CHARLESON, South Carolina — Most of the nation's harbor deepening projects — including projects in Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, — could be paid for if a national harbor trust fund wasn't raided for other purposes, a trio of federal lawmakers said Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, (R-Pa.) joined U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, (D-S.C.) and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, (R-S.C.) in visiting the Port of Charleston for a discussion Tuesday with maritime leaders in Charleston.
Maritime interests in Charleston want the shipping channel deepened to 50 feet from its present 45 feet as ports race to deepen their harbors to handle the larger container ships that will routinely call when the expanded Panama Canal opens in two years.
Shuster, who is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the visit is part of a series of stops he is making around the nation to get a look at transportation infrastructure.
"The question out there as to dredging the port and deepening it 5 feet more is not just important to South Carolina and to Charleston, but to the nation as well," he said.
Shuster said the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund this year collected about $1.8 billion through port fees but only about $800 million went to port projects.
"The other portion of that is the Washington shell game that allows appropriators to spend it in other places," he said. "If you were to dedicate all that funding to harbor maintenance and the dredging and expanding of the ports you would have a lot of the money — maybe not all your need."
Studies are currently underway on a project to deepen Charleston — one that could cost as much as $350 million. In nearby Savannah, Georgia, officials have embarked on a $650 million-plus project to deepening their shipping channel.
During a public information session held Tuesday, Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, the district engineer for the Charleston District, said that the studies will help determine the final cost of the Charleston project, estimated now to be at least $300 and perhaps $350 million. The federal share of the project is estimated at $120 million.
Clyburn said deepening the Charleston Harbor only makes sense.
"The return we get on this investment is immeasurable," he said. "This is an investment in the economy of this region of the country. To say we're not going to meet our obligations and have the economy falter doesn't make sense," he said.
"In order for us to achieve our exporting goals as a nation, one of the ports that helps us get there the fastest — an American port that happens to be in Charleston — is in fact part of the solution," Scott said.