House overwhelmingly approves bill to aid South Carolina ports

Curtis Tate

The House of Representatives voted 417-3 on Wednesday to approve a bill to move forward with a broad array of water-related infrastructure projects across the country, including long-sought improvements to South Carolina ports.

The Water Resources, Reform and Development Act aims to shorten the time and lower the cost of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ review process for projects such as the dredging of the Port of Charleston to a depth of 50 feet from 45 feet.

The bill does not include an authorization for the Charleston port, but it would help expedite the approval process by limiting corps studies to three years and $3 million. Critics say lengthy reviews have delayed needed projects and cost taxpayers more, though some groups warn against weakening rules intended to protect the public and the environment.

The bill also would help smaller ports such as Georgetown’s get federal funding, too.

The South Carolina congressional delegation has sought port projects to keep the state competitive as trade volume grows and exports increase. An expansion of the Panama Canal to be completed in 2015 could bring larger ships to East Coast cities, which would need deeper channels and harbors to accommodate them.

“My focus in the Congress is American competitiveness,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, after the vote. “If we don’t have ports, how can we compete? It’s vital.”

With the drama of the government shutdown and debt limit over, at least for now, the bill presented an opportunity for lawmakers in both parties to come together on major legislation. The House and Senate must reconcile their bills before it reaches the president’s desk for his signature.

Congress last passed a water infrastructure bill in 2007 with overwhelming bipartisan support. In May, the Senate approved its version of the latest bill on an 83-14 vote. Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved it unanimously.

House leaders Wednesday hailed the bill’s reforms, which include the expedited project approval process, aimed at clearing a $60 billion backlog. It de-authorizes $12 billion in projects that have languished for years.

The bill also contains no earmarks, or pet projects in lawmakers’ home states or districts. The last one had hundreds.

But fiscally conservative groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and Heritage Action warned that the bill would give too much authority to the corps and hide pork barrel spending in other ways. And environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation said the bill would weaken longstanding environmental protections.

The White House said in a statement that President Barack Obama supported passage of the House bill, but expressed concern that it would authorize marginal projects, shift too much cost to taxpayers and undermine the environmental review process.

By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau