WASHINGTON — A rare bipartisan push by leaders of the South Carolina congressional delegation Tuesday broke a 15-month impasse in obtaining federal funds for launching a $329 million deepening of the Charleston port.
While the $150,000 secured for the Army Corps of Engineers to start a port-deepening study is a fairly small federal expenditure, it will prevent Charleston from falling behind other Atlantic ports being upgraded to accommodate a new generation of super-freighters after the Panama Canal widening is completed in 2014.
"This port accounts for one in five jobs in South Carolina," said Sen. Lindsey Graham. "Sixty percent of the goods that pass through the port come from the Upstate. If this port is not deepened and becomes noncompetitive, it's going to destroy our economy."
Receiving money from the corps' current operating budget enables South Carolina to enter into a formal cost-sharing agreement that will see it pay slightly more than half of the project's expected $329 million cost.
Graham and Rep. Tim Scott, both Republicans, and House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn said they'd pushed the stalled port project in personal meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and their party leaders in the House and Senate.
"People got tired of talking to us about this," said Graham, of Seneca. "Between me and Jim, we talked to everybody in the Congress on the House and Senate side about how silly it would be to allow the Charleston port not to move forward in 2011. A lot of this came from persistence and people wanting to do us a favor."
Graham said Scott, a former Charleston County Council chairman whose congressional district includes the port, used his clout as a leader of the large House Republican freshman class to insist on funding for the project.
"When it comes to addressing the needs of South Carolina, there are no Republicans and no Democrats," Scott said. "There is only Team South Carolina."
Gov. Nikki Haley hailed the news from Washington.
"As I recruit companies and jobs to South Carolina, one of the main topics of conversation is always our ports," Haley said. "South Carolina is in the unique position to lead the nation in economic development if we can strengthen and deepen the Charleston port."
The $150,000 obtained from the corps' current budget is a prorated share of the study's $400,000 cost in the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The corps study on deepening the Charleston port to 50 feet would take four years to complete at a total cost of $16 million to be split equally between the federal and S.C. state governments.
If the study recommends deepening the port, engineering design would cost about $63 million, with the federal government covering 75 percent of the price.
Construction is pegged at $250 million at a cost of 60 percent to the state and 40 percent to Washington.
Clyburn, from Columbia, cautioned that in the current Republican-led drive to slash federal spending, it will take sustained effort by him and other S.C. lawmakers to get continued annual appropriations.
"As soon as we get over the euphoria of having gotten this (first funding leg) done, we've got to make sure we put together a plan for fiscal year 2012 that will allow this project to continue to develop," Clyburn said.
Clyburn, a close ally of President Barack Obama, said he has asked Biden to help obtain separate funding to dredge the Georgetown port near the Grand Strand.
Biden and Clyburn are serving on a bipartisan seven-member task force appointed by Obama last month to hammer out a deficit-reduction plan.
Clyburn said he explained to Biden the importance of the Georgetown port, which has silted in to a depth of 21 feet instead its authorized depth of 27 feet.
"I said something's wrong when farmers of the Pee Dee have to pack their soybeans on trucks and send them up to Wilmington (in North Carolina) rather than using the Georgetown port," Clyburn said.
"The same is true with the Georgetown steel mill coming back on line, but it can't use the Georgetown port," he said.
Clyburn and Graham repeated their demands, with other coastal state lawmakers, that the federal government stop using harbor maintenance taxes for unrelated needs while ports nationwide lack proper dredging.
Clyburn said he recently pushed the issue in a meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who promised to get him an answer soon.
Clyburn had blamed Sen. Jim DeMint's opposition to appropriations earmarks for the holdup in securing the Charleston port deepening money.
DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson didn't sign a delegation letter to Obama seeking the funds in December.
DeMint said Tuesday that his anti-earmark initiative, which Obama and congressional leaders of both parties eventually joined, had helped the Charleston port obtain funding.
"I appreciate that after we have ended earmarks, the corps chose to fund the study for Charleston port deepening on merit instead of being forced to fund wasteful earmarks based on politics," DeMint said.