Sen. Lindsey Graham: Port infrastructure funding needs overhaul

By Matt Tomsic
Published March 19, 2013

Sen. Lindsey Graham is working toward a federal bill that would set aside a pot of money for port infrastructure projects and use a merit-based approach to select and fund those projects.

Sen. Lindsey Graham
Sen. Lindsey Graham
Graham talked to the S.C. State Ports Authority board about his proposed legislation Tuesday after Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District, addressed the board about the status of the Charleston Harbor deepening study.

“Big picture is we’re on schedule,” Chamberlayne said, adding the corps hopes to finish its draft report by 2015. “That is long for some but that is lightning fast for the Corps of Engineers.”

Chamberlayne said automatic spending cuts included in sequestration could slow the project down. The Department of Defense has announced plans to furlough civilian workers for its share of $85 billion in across-the-board cuts. Chamberlayne has said the furloughs affect about 250 employees in the Charleston District and will reduce them to four-day work weeks from April through September.

“The exact details of what will be impacted remain to be seen,” Chamberlayne said. “This harbor deepening study is the No. 1 priority for me. But I may be limited in time that my employees can work.”

Graham hopes to get rid of sequestration this year with a bill that flattens the tax code and reforms entitlement programs while also addressing infrastructure projects.

“This port bill to me is a natural fit for the big deal,” Graham said. “The goal is to plug this in as part of a bigger package on infrastructure modernization. The fact that we don’t earmark any longer has made us think outside the box.”

Congress used to fund local infrastructure projects through earmarks but issued a self-imposed earmarks ban years ago. Since then, Graham said, he has been studying alternatives to fund port projects.

Graham’s proposal creates a $20 billion pot of money for ports across the country to use for infrastructure improvements. East Coast ports can use the funds for harbor deepening projects, Graham said, while West Coast ports, which are already deepened, can use the funding for port-side infrastructure. Inland ports will have access to the funds to deepen the Mississippi River and other infrastructure projects.

“I cannot expect the West Coast people to fund a bill that just helps the East Coast,” Graham said. “There’s something in here for everybody.”

The proposal also creates a formula the federal government can use to choose which projects to fund.

“I think the merit-based system we’ve come up with, Charleston would fare well,” Graham said.

That formula considers each port’s growth, its traffic, the population area it serves and other criteria.

“It’s a business approach,” Graham said. “Earmarking was a political approach. To get money from the federal government, you’ve got to prove that it’s a benefit to the country as a whole, not just your backyard.”

Graham said the Port of Charleston will do well because of its tie to South Carolina’s economy.

“If we have a new port modernization bill it will be because of the story of Charleston,” Graham said. “You hadn’t sat on your hindquarters and whined. We just woke up to reality.”

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