S.C. prepared to pick up full tab for Charleston port dredging

An editorial by Ron Brinson from the Charleston Post & Courier — Federal ‘reforms’ for port upgrade are long overdue — gives a nice overview of some of the broader issues involving dredging around the country. I’ve been routinely looking to Charleston and other cities for quality commentary, because we in Savannah have been so focused on the Savannah River deepening, which is just one small chapter in a much bigger story of Corps of Engineers projects, federal funding, changes to the shipping industry, and any number of other narrative lines.

In a recent City Talk column, I noted that so far the state of Georgia has given no clear signals that it would be willing to pick up the full tab of the $650 million dredging of the Savannah River from 42 feet to 47 feet along a 30-mile long channel.

Recently, South Carolina’s elected leaders made it pretty clear that they’re likely to pay the entire $300 million estimated cost of dredging in Charleston if the federal government does not come up with the funds.

But the editorial covers a lot more ground than just that. An excerpt:

In 2012, as many U.S. ports plan anxiously for the Panama Canal expansion, the federal performance in development and maintenance of the federal channel system is as unpredictable and as unreliable as ever. Today, local port authorities pay as much as 60 per cent of the cost of federal channel deepening.

With its Harbor Maintenance Tax, the government has collected nearly $6 billion more than it has spent on channel maintenance since 1986. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office concluded, “Full channel dimensions are, on average, available less than about a third of the time at the 59 highest use U.S. harbors.”

Despite the promises of the 1986 “reforms” and the well-documented needs for wider and deeper federal channels, there has been one new work authorization bill in the last decade — one!

Of the $2.4 billion authorized for deeper channels over the last 12 years, 75 percent was designated for New York Harbor.

Clearly, we need some sort of national strategy regarding harbor deepenings, and there needs to be a clear federal system for approving and funding projects that are in fact, as the Corps routinely says, “in the national interest”.

The editorial simply omits environmental concerns — there are many here in Savannah. So many, in fact, that $292 million of the entire $652 million project will go to mitigation of anticipated effects to water quality, fish habitats, and so forth.