State approves funding to dredge Georgetown port

Most of the long-awaited money to dredge the Port of Georgetown is on its way.

The state recently set aside $18 million, more than half of the $33 million total needed.

The rest will have to come from other sources, but Georgetown officials believe reaching their funding goal gets much easier from here.

For years now, the port has been stuck in a Catch 22, or what one official calls a "chicken and egg" situation.

Silt has built up in the channel and it needs to be dredged to a depth of 27 feet.

But to qualify to get federal money for dredging, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the port needs at least a million tons of freight to go through each year.

However, the port can't bring in that amount of tonnage until the channel gets dredged.

"Now, if we have the depth, then we can get the tonnage," said Tim Tilley, chairman of the Georgetown Dredging Task Force. "If we don't have the tonnage, we haven't been able to get the funding. So that has been the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?"

Now, the solution is closer than it's been in years.

If the port is dredged, local leaders say Georgetown's Arcelor-Mittal steel mill should be able to get its raw material shipped in at a much lower cost.

That could lead to a second shift at the mill and nearly 50 new jobs.

"With the increase in the orders that we'd be getting to receive, it very well could mean a much more increase in the manpower here at our mill," said United Steelworkers Local 7898 president James Sanderson.

But that still depends on the federal government coming through with the rest of the funding.

This month, Congress passed the new Water Resources Reform and Development Act that should make it easier for Georgetown to qualify for federal funding, regardless of the tonnage.

It's not a done deal, but Tilley believes total funding is closer than it's ever been.

"I'm personally very confident. If we were to put in terms of percentage, I would definitely take odds on it," Tilley said.

The Georgetown county council may also ask voters approve a one-cent hike in the local sales tax in a November referendum. That would raise another $6 million for dredging, Tilley said.

However, that was tried in 2012 when a one-cent sales tax hike to pay for several capital projects including the dredging of the port was put on the ballot. Voters turned it down.

Once it's fully funded, Tilley said the dredging should take about four years to complete.