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Economic development: State considers bonds for Georgetown port dredging

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The lion’s share of funding for dredging of the Charleston port is included in the budget recently approved by the state House of Representatives, but funding for the Georgetown port hinges on a bond bill put forth by the Senate.

The House budget calls for $180 million to dredge the Charleston port, a $300 million project. No funding is included for the Georgetown port, but the bond bill would provide $18 million for the $33.5 million project, as well as providing the other $120 million for the Charleston port.

Lawmakers hope to come up with another $15 million for the Georgetown Port through federal grants or local funds, said S.C. Sen. Ray Cleary.

Efforts to get the Georgetown port dredged have been led by S.C. Sen. Yancey McGill, but he didn’t return phone calls from the Coastal Observer.

The budget and the bill need to be passed for full funding to be guaranteed for the ports projects, allowing the S.C. State Ports Authority to start marketing the ports to shippers at their post-dredging depths, according to Cleary.

“What carriers want to know is that we won’t falter,” he said. They want assurances that not just part of the money for the project will be available.

For the Charleston port the sum in the budget accounts for 60 percent of the project cost. Traditionally, that’s the portion of dredging costs paid by states. The federal government generally contributes the other 40 percent, Cleary explained.

The state doesn’t want to pay the full cost of dredging if it stands a chance of having the federal government chip in later, which is why there wasn’t an effort to write the whole project into the budget. But there’s no guarantee the federal funds will come through.

“It used to be done through earmarks, but nobody knows what’s happening with those things now,” Cleary said.

That’s where the bond bill comes in. It gives shippers a guarantee that funding will be available when it’s needed, even if federal funding isn’t provided. The bill has to get through the Senate Finance Committee and the full Senate before moving to the House.

“There’s always a fight,” Cleary said, naming some legislators he knows want to derail the plan. “There are a lot of demands on the budget.”

But it’s definitely worth the fight, he added.

“Infrastructure is the key, in my opinion, to creating business more than corporate taxes. And with the way shipping is going, it’s just critical we get this done.”

When improvements to the Panama Canal are complete, shipping is expected to increase, meaning more business for ports on the east coast, and South Carolina’s ports need to be ready to take advantage of the upward shift, he said.

The Georgetown port handles primarily non-containerized cargo. It is anticipated that predicted discounts on non-containerized shipping as a result of improvements to the Panama Canal and a trend toward larger ships will mean more companies utilize noncontainerized shipping options, according to a recent report on the port’s potential.

A port dredging taskforce McGill formed last year continues its work on locating funds for dredging, as well as educating the public about the port and why dredging is imperative, said Tim Tilley, who heads the group.

A county capital projects sales tax is also being considered as a source of funding for dredging of the Georgetown port. A bill introduced earlier this year would make dredging an allowable use for capital projects sales tax revenue. A committee of Georgetown County residents will get to work this week on a referendum proposing a 1-cent capital projects sales tax for the county. The referendum will appear on the ballot in November.

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