WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham on Wednesday hailed the news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had allocated $2.5 million to expand its study on deepening the Charleston, S.C., port to accommodate a new generation of super-tankers.
Graham said he's hopeful that President Barack Obama will include additional funding beyond the start of the 2013 fiscal year in the budget he sends Congress next week.
The $2.5 million in new funding will be used for the remaining almost eight months of the 2012 fiscal year. Graham, a Seneca, S.C., Republican, obtained details about it in a work plan from the Army Corps of Engineers, which started the Charleston port study last year with a $150,000 grant.
"Today, about one out of every five jobs in South Carolina is tied, directly and indirectly, to the operation of the (Charleston) port," Graham said. "Deepening the port will allow us to keep these jobs in our state and also create more jobs in the future."
No president gets everything requested in a budget, and Republican lawmakers will likely seek to block many of Obama's funding requests in an election year focused on federal spending and government debt.
But Army Corps of Engineers projects are more likely than many others to gain congressional funding because most are noncontroversial and they're spread across the country in virtually every district and state.
The South Carolina Ports Authority must match the $2.5 million in new federal funding, plus any future federal money from Obama's 2013 budget proposal or subsequent appropriations bills.
Bill Stern, the agency's chairman, said he would be happy to face that challenge.
"This is wonderful news for the 260,000 South Carolinians whose jobs depend on the competitiveness of our port," Stern said in a statement. "The nation needs a true 50-foot (deep) harbor in the Southeast region to serve the growing needs of trade, including bigger ships and increased demand overseas for U.S. goods."
The entire Charleston port study will cost a projected $20 million and will take several years to complete, following by the actual deepening to 50 feet from its present depth of 45 feet.
The whole project will cost an estimated $300 million, with the S.C. Ports Authority covering half the price tag.
Graham noted that a year ago, Obama didn't request any money for the project in Charleston. It's competing with other Atlantic ports for federal funds to be deepened in time to accommodate giant cargo ships that will arrive after the Panama Canal widening is completed in 2014.
Obama administration officials cited division within the South Carolina congressional delegation over the Charleston port as a reason for withholding funds after Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson refused to sign a delegation letter requesting the money.
DeMint, a Greenville Republican who is among the fiercest anti-spending crusaders in Congress, and Wilson, a Lexington Republican, both declined comment Wednesday on the potential infusion of $2.5 million.
Mainly because of his frustration over the funding impasse, Graham switched to the Senate Appropriations Committee a year ago. From that post, he crafted a legislative provision that netted the $150,000 to keep the Charleston port study alive.
"These funds are being awarded under a more merit-based system," Graham said. "We have always known that Charleston will fare well under that standard as harbor deepening is a worthwhile investment."
Freshman Rep. Tim Scott, a North Charleston Republican whose 1st Congressional District is home to the Charleston port, also lauded news of the $2.5 million funding infusion.
"Today's announcement is great news for the Port of Charleston and proves once again that Charleston will play a key role in our nation's maritime trading future," Scott said.
"Our port is one of the nation's top container and cargo ports, and the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2014 will bring even more opportunities to the Lowcountry," he said.
Many products made throughout South Carolina pass through the Charleston port on their way to other states and countries, including BMW cars and Michelin tires manufactured at relatively new plants in the Upstate.
More than 20,000 companies in two dozen states use the port to access global markets, shipping goods worth $50 billion a year and paying more than $600 million in duties to federal coffers, according to the S.C. Ports Authority.
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CORRECTION: This article distributed Wednesday about the port of Charleston, S.C., misidentified the recipient of $600 million in duties paid by companies that use the port to transport goods. The duties go to the federal government.