"This is the first test of the new allocation system after earmarks," the Republican lawmaker representing the 7th District told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "This is a pretty historic thing."

The measure 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.

"Georgetown is caught in a Catch 22," said Rice, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"At one time, Georgetown had more than a million tons of cargo which would have allowed them to use harbor maintenance funds," he said. "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."

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 Georgetown Steel 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 act 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 deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel, which could cost as much as $350 million, is not included because a final report from the Corps determining if the project is in the nation's interest has not been completed. Studies of the project are still underway.

But Rice, members of the state's congressional delegation and lawmakers from other states inserted language to make sure such projects keep moving forward.

It 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 then 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.

Associated Press