Sen. Lindsey Graham held a conference call Monday to praise President Barack Obama's inclusion of $3.5 million for a Charleston harbor-deepening study in his proposed 2013 budget. Sen. Graham thanked the president for the budget item, which he said would prevent his having to earmark the funds, but harshly criticized the rest of the $3.8 trillion budget.
"The president's budget as a whole is more a political document than it is a solution," said Graham, an Upstate Republican. He added that most of the proposed budget is "not going anywhere," even in the Democratic-majority Senate.
Officials from the S.C. State Ports Authority have called for a deepening of the harbor from its current mean low-tide depth of 45 feet to accommodate the bigger cargo ships that will be headed for East Coast ports once the planned expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014. According to one estimate from the SCSPA, each additional foot of harbor depth would allow ships to carry an additional 100 loaded containers.
The $3.5 million budget proposal comes on the heels of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' announcement last week that that it would set aside $2.5 million for the same port-deepening study. Mayor Riley met with President Obama twice regarding the port project, in January 2011 and January 2012. Sen. Graham thanked Riley, as well as U.S. Reps. Tim Scott and Jim Clyburn, who he said had also appealed directly to Obama about the project.
According to a timeline issued by the SCSPA, the harbor project is entering a five- to eight-year feasibility study phase to assess economic and environmental impact, to be followed by about six years of engineering, design, and construction. Sen. Graham said that schedule was far too slow.
"It'll take us longer to go from 45 to 50 feet than it did to build the Panama Canal," Graham said. "That's ridiculous."
Sen. Graham, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was confident that the $3.5 million allocation would survive even during a hotly contested election-year budget process. "I think everybody in the House knows how important it is," Graham said. "And I'd hate to be the House member that told me no."
The bigger obstacle, he said, will be securing the remaining funds for the completion of the deepening project, which he said could total as much as $300 million.
"This is good news for 2013," he said, "but we've got a long way to go."