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More money could be coming for Charleston port project

South Carolina is now eligible for more federal dollars for its Charleston Harbor deepening project.

Going forward, the state will be in a better position to sidestep some of the bureaucracy that has thwarted earlier bids to get maximum government funding for the endeavor to dredge the harbor floor to 52 feet.

That dredging will allow larger ships to service the Port of Charleston and provide a major boost to the local economy.

Proponents even see a new possibility to finish the project ahead of schedule.

“We have timed the project to be complete by the end of 2021 but hope springs eternal that a steady stream of money ... could increase the chances of finishing (early),” Barbara Melvin, senior vice president of operations and terminals at the South Carolina Ports Authority, told reporters on Friday.

The Ports Authority announced Monday at its annual presentation to stakeholders it succeeded in securing a larger “benefit/cost ratio” analysis for the Charleston Harbor project.

When the Army Corps doles out funding for any harbor dredging project, it uses what’s known as a “benefit/cost ratio” analysis to determine how much money the undertaking should receive.

Once the Army Corps determines an appropriate allocation using this analysis, the Office of Management and Budget performs its own analysis of that number to determine the final allocation. The cost of every harbor deepening project around the country is run through the same formula.

The analysis for South Carolina originally concluded the Charleston Harbor did not meet the necessary requirements to receive funds beyond those coming out of a single, limited pot of money designated for ports projects under the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget.

The Ports Authority appealed to the Army Corps to crunch the numbers again.

This time, it determined the Charleston project qualified not only for Army Corps money, but exceeded the Office of Management and Budget’s threshold necessary to be included in the president’s annual budget, too. That means the White House can now request Congress approve money for the initiative sometime in the next year..

Additional funding for the project isn’t automatic, but now it is at least qualified for not one but two sources of funding — a major victory for the Ports Authority and proponents of the endeavor.

South Carolina Republican elected officials had been working their connections to the White House for months to get a better deal for the project.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who endorsed President Donald Trump in the days before the state’s decisive 2016 presidential primary election, spoke personally to Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s frequent golfing companion, was also lobbying the administration, too.

Graham and South Carolina’s other U.S. Senator, Republican Tim Scott, helped secure language in a water resources act that would begin the process of “modernizing” the benefit/cost ratio analysis to take more criteria into account when calculating funding allocations. McMaster, Graham, Scott and others argued that the Army Corps’ original analysis relied on outdated information.

Everybody appealed to Mick Mulvaney, the former South Carolina Republican Congressman who now runs the Office of Management and Budget and could theoretically have some influence in the process.

Ultimately, however, it was not their lobbying that won the deepening project its new allocation. Melvin explained it was simply a request that the Army Corps take a second look — and that request got granted.

“This is not something that is abnormal. If you look at other harbor deepening project ... they request recalculation,” she said. “This process that we have gone through is the regular process.”

South Carolina needs $558 million to complete the deepening project. The state has already contributed $300 million of its own money, plus a $50 million loan, and is relying on $287 million in federal funds to finish the job.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain