April 24, 2014

Congressman: S.C. jobs at stake as final details of port funding bill ironed out

The Charleston port is one of the state's ports that could benefit from additional language in a new federal bill. (File photo)

The Charleston port is one of the state’s ports that could benefit from additional language in a new federal bill. (File photo)

It all boils down to jobs.

And if a S.C. congressman can work in language into a U.S. Senate and House-passed bill that funds ports around the nation, he said the Palmetto State won’t have to wait for those jobs or watch them go elsewhere — whether its the Charleston port deepening project or the Georgetown port’s dredging project.

Freshman Congressman Tom Rice, R-S.C., representing District 7, was appointed last week to a bipartisan, conference committee charged with ironing out language between a House and Senate bill that will expedite and fund port projects. That conference meets for the first time 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

You can view the livestream here.

Rice said, without deepening and dredging at South Carolina ports, the use of smaller ships could add money to shipping costs. He said that would cause S.C. exporters to become disadvantaged, which would cost jobs and growth.

Rep. Tom Rice

Rep. Tom Rice

In a time of deep, national partisan divide, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed 417 to 3 in the U.S. House in October.

“There have been things like naming of bridges and things like that that have overwhelming support … but with something of this degree of substance, this is the closest to unanimity that I’ve seen,” Rice told South Carolina Radio Network.

The bill seeks to allow states to move forward with pre-approved Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure projects with their own money, to later be reimbursed by the federal government. Rice said the bill would “cut red tape” and projects could move at a faster pace.

Rice said vote on the bill has become necessary now that earmarking has been abolished in the House.

An enticing boon to those anti-pork congressmen is that the bill divvies up the money based on a merit system.

“Merit is based on the dollars spent versus the benefit received in terms of jobs and economic development,” Rice said. “I don’t believe that spending money on meritorious infrastructure is spending. I think it’s an investment.”

But without language changes in the bill, it won’t solve two key South Carolina issues that could hold back port projects and the ports’ exporting industries.

According to Rice, the current bill states that only ports with active permits can be expedited until another bill is passed, possibly two years down the road. Charleston’s port does not have active permits, and Rice said the harbor cannot wait without serious impact to S.C. industries.

“I have never heard anybody argue that money spent on the additional five feet of depth in Charleston is not good value for the dollar. It’s so very close to the ocean and, second, it’s so close to the required depth already,” Rice said. “One in five South Carolina families are affected by the Charleston port. It’s got a lot of very apparent merit.”

Rice is seeking to add language that would allow the Charleston port, currently in the permit process, to seek merit approval.

Another language issue affects the Port of Georgetown. According to Rice, the bill wouldn’t solve the port’s current “catch 22″ situation. Since temporarily losing its steel exporter, the port does not merit dredging based on tonnage. And because the port now has silted in, potential exporters cannot use the port and increase tonnage, Rice explained.

“This (language) amends that to allow Georgetown to request those funds,” Rice said. “Georgetown has a strong argument for merit and I will certainly assist them in that regard.”

Rice added that a small federal contribution could bolster hundreds of jobs.

Want to learn more about the Water Resources Reform and Development Act? Check out this video produced by House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster: