Friday, October 25, 2013
The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act on Wednesday, which means money could be coming for the much needed dredging of the channel leading to the Port of Georgetown.
WRRDA is an authorization bill which gives the Appropriations Committee the authority to allocate funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. This is the first WRRDA bill of this kind since it has been drafted in a post-earmark era.
The vote Wednesday by the House was the first since Congress abandoned the policy of using earmarks and a bill that U.S. Rep. Tom Rice says is good for South Carolina's ports.
He told the Associated Press it was a “historic” vote since the bill was the first test of the new allocation system after earmarks.
Caroline Vanvick, spokesperson for Rep. Rice said that historically, Congress has passed similar legislation every two years, but no bill has been signed into law since 2007.
Rice is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has worked with that committee's chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) and subcommittee chairman Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) to secure authorization in WRRDA for the Georgetown and Charleston Ports so South Carolina's ports can compete in a post-Panamax world.
“From day one, congressman Rice has clearly expressed the importance of South Carolina's ports and water infrastructure to his state and our country's economy,” Shuster said.
“I was pleased to tour some of the critical infrastructure in his state with him, and Tom has made the case both in Washington and in South Carolina further emphasizing how these ports are tied to jobs and American competitiveness.”
The bill passed in the House Wednesday authorizes the Appropriations Committee to allocate money for harbor projects from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that brings in $1.8 billion a year from port users. The Senate earlier passed its own version of the bill.
The House version includes a provision Rice helped insert to help smaller ports like Georgetown. For the next two fiscal years, it allocates 10 percent of Trust Fund expenditures for improvements at ports handling less than 1 million tons of cargo annually.
Currently, such smaller ports can't get the money.
Vanvick said there will be a House and Senate conference soon to iron out any differences between the two bills, and then the final version will go to President Barack Obama.
There is no date set for the conference. Vanvick said Rice expects his provision to remain in the final bill.
“Georgetown is caught in a Catch 22,” Rice said.
“At one time, Georgetown had more than a million tons of cargo, which would have allowed them to use harbor maintenance funds. But when the steel mill closed down temporarily, they lost their tonnage and the river silted in. They couldn't get it dredged until they got the tonnage back up, and they couldn't get the tonnage back up until they got it dredged.”
Georgetown received authorization for dredging in 2007, so it already has the authorization it needs to move forward.
That dredging should cost about $30 million and Rice said he will make his case to the Corps of Engineers that the project is worthwhile once the bill is passed.
Currently the Georgetown steel mill brings in ore by ship through Wilmington and then by rail to Georgetown. That ore could be brought in locally by ship if the port were dredged.
The bill passed in the House Wednesday authorizes spending on 26 waterway and harbor improvement projects nationwide. They are not earmarks because they were not inserted by individual members of Congress.
The bill allows engineering and construction on projects receiving final Corps approval after the act is approved to move forward using local or state funds. Port agencies can later apply for federal reimbursement.
Currently, only about half the money raised by the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund each year goes to water projects. The bill requires that by 2020, 80 percent of the money be used for such projects.