“In my opinion, we need to scrap the process, everything they are doing, and start over.”

That’s the thought Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC-7) shared with the Georgetown Times Thursday about the current methods the federal government uses for port and infrastructure funding.

“I think it threatens the American economy and jobs,” Rice said.

“I can’t imagine that if you set out to design a worse system, I don’t think you could do it.”

That train of thought is one shared by many around Georgetown County who have long thirsted for a solution to problems of maintenance dredging for the Port of Georgetown.

It’s been so long since the federal channel in Winyah Bay and the harbor at Georgetown have been dredged that the mandated 27-foot depth has silted in to just 17 or 18 feet in places.

Rice spoke with the Times Thursday after a “Roundtable on Ports: Jobs, Economic Development, and Trade” in Washington.

The roundtable heard from American Association of Port Authorities President Kurt J. Nagle; Maersk, Inc. Vice President of Government Relations Clint Eisenhauer; Port of Tampa President and CEO Paul Anderson; and Port of Skagit Executive Director Patsy Martin.

Skagit is a small port city in Washington state. Rice said Martin related similar circumstances to Georgetown for that area.

Her city has a 10-mile waterway with less than a million tons of shipping annually. Her port is a direct contributor to more than 500 jobs.

For Georgetown, the channel runs 14 miles through Winyah Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. Shipping has dropped significantly below the current million-ton threshhold to ensure maintenance dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Martin asserted — and many of the House committee members agreed — that tonnage should not be all and end all. With containerized shipping, weight is not the factor it used to be.

“It looks like we have three real problems with ports, and infrastructure in general,” Rice said.

“We have money problems, but also the time it takes to get things carried out.” He added that those delays can lead to cost overruns, such as the Port of Miami is facing. Because of years and years of delays, the cost has increased and now the federal government — which mandated numerous studies since 1999 — says it’s taken too long and will cost too much.

Rice noted that the ban on earmarks is appropriate, but that causes problems because of the way funding is allocated.

He would like to see a merit-based allocation system. He believes that existing industry in the area, coupled with prospective industry that would come through Georgetown if the channel was deep enough, would make a successful case for funding the $33 million cost of dredging.

“But, we need to find a better system for allocating money rather than turning the funds over to the administration,” Rice said.

“The bottom line is, when you look at the incredible length of time it takes from start to finish on these things, we’ve got an enormous problem with the process. It appears to me the federal government wants to micro-manage the process. But,” Rice continued, “if they want to do that, they need to be more nimble.

“We’re going to take a long, hard look at this. I’m just one person, but I’m going to do everything I can to put in some common-sense reform.”

There is a current Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, but a lot of the money in that trust account is being diverted by the administration to the federal general fund. “If we could just get that money where the user fees are used to maintain the ports, it would take care of a lot of the problems.”

He said that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham “is certainly a friend of Georgetown.”

The U.S. House will produce a water bill, which is where funding is slated for ports, and he will advocate for a merit-based allocation of limited funds.

“It’ll be up to us to establish the merit.”

Rice said it would likely take until the fall of the year for the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to make its way through Congress.

When asked whether he thought President Barack Obama would sign such a bill into law, Rice replied, “I don’t know what he’s going to do on a day-to-day basis. I can tell you this, if we expect to be competitive … we’ve got to have working ports.”

Rice has met and talked with the Corps of Engineers personally on several occasions about the Georgetown port and other projects.

“I assure you I am peering into every way that the infrastructure in the 7th District will get the attention it deserves.

“There’s no moss growing on me. I’m working hard to represent your interests.”

By Tommy Howard, Georgetown Times. Published Friday, March 22, 2013 5:57 AM