Obama: Charleston deepening nationally significant

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama Administration says that the $300 million deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel is a nationally significant project and work to complete it will be expedited.

The White House released a statement late Wednesday that Charleston is among five ports where work will be expedited under the federal "We Can't Wait" program.

The other ports are Savannah, Jacksonville, Miami and the Port of New York and New Jersey. The administration says additional projects to be expedited will be announced in the coming months.

"It's most important to deepen harbors in the southeast because this is where the nation's exports come from, whether they're manufactured goods or agricultural products," said Allison Skipper, Spokesperson for the South Carolina Ports Authority. "We just consider this great news coming out of the port today. This essentially shaves up to a year additionally off the project timeline."

The Corps of Engineers announced last week that studies for the Charleston Harbor deepening project are ahead of schedule and the project, if all goes according to plan, could be completed by 2020 - four years earlier than projected.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham says money is still needed for the $300 million effort. Graham spoke on Thursday with South Carolina reporters by phone from Washington.

Graham says Congress must still come up with money to pay for the work itself and that he'd like to see about $20 billion put aside in an account to pay for harbor projects both inland and on the nation's coasts.

Graham says he applauds the administration, and that there should be a national vision for port needs.

White House spokesman Jay Carney noted that accelerating such projects was a recommendation from the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Presidential challenger Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for not meeting with the jobs council for six months.

The South Carolina Ports Authority released a statement saying in part:

"This announcement represents more good news for our deepening project, and demonstrates that the highest levels of our government understand the critical need to advance this project," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA). "In just two years, we have gone from not being included in the President's Budget to now being a top priority. We are grateful for the Administration's commitment."

We Can't Wait is the result of a Presidential Executive Order issued in March, which called for a government-wide effort to streamline the permitting and review process for vital infrastructure projects in communities across the nation.

The SCPA, along with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Congressman Jim Clyburn and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, in April sent letters to the Administration and members of the steering committee charged with this initiative, asking that they include Charleston's Post 45 Project in their priority infrastructure list. The steering committee, comprised of leadership of the U.S. Army as well as the federal departments of Transportation, Commerce and Agriculture, participated in the selection process.

"This priority infrastructure program is a natural extension of the Obama Administration's export initiative," Newsome said. "There is clearly a recognition that in order to double the nation's exports - which are primarily sourced from the Southeast region - a port in this region must be deepened to at least 50 feet to accommodate the largest ships expected to call our coast without tidal restriction. We anticipate a favorable cost-to-benefit ratio in the Chief's Report allowing for a true post-Panamax harbor allowing for two-way vessel traffic."

*WCIV contributed to this report