CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden implored Americans on Monday to find the resources to invest in its ports, warning that the U.S. will fall behind its competitors unless it spends now to bolster its infrastructure.
Addressing a crowd of about 300 on a wind-swept dock in Charleston, S.C., Biden said the U.S. is behind the rest of the world. He cast infrastructure projects as key to a broader strategy of growing the middle class, calling them a big win not just for local communities, but the entire nation.
"Every time we invest in infrastructure as Democrats or as Republicans — every time we have done it — the economy grows and it grows good, decent-paying jobs," Biden said.
The Charleston swing by Biden and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was the latest stop in an ongoing effort by the vice president to shine a light on the nation's ailing roads, bridges and ports in hopes of encouraging more investment despite opposition by many Republicans to more government spending.
The two visited the Port of Baltimore last week, and after visiting Charleston on Monday, Biden headed to Savannah, Ga., whose port is a keen rival with South Carolina.
Before speaking on the Charleston docks, Biden and Foxx met with officials at the South Carolina State Port Authority's Wando Terminal in nearby Mount Pleasant. They chatted for a time with longshoremen who took a break from loading three massive container ships that were at the docks.
Charleston is working on a harbor deepening project expected to cost more than $300 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying the project, but Biden said he already knew what that study would likely conclude.
"We'd better deepen it to 50 feet," Biden said. "Otherwise, guess what? We're going to be left behind, because other ports are going ahead and doing it."
Like other East Coast ports, Savannah and Charleston are scrambling for federal permits and funding to deepen their shipping channels to make room for supersized cargo ships expected after the Panama Canal finishes a major expansion in 2015. On the East Coast, only the ports of New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., have water deepen enough to accommodate the massive ships with full loads and at lower tides.
In Georgia, Biden gave one of the strongest endorsements yet for the $652 million proposal to deepen the Savannah harbor, telling about 500 port workers and invited dignitaries at the dock: "We are going to get this done, as my grandfather would say, come hell or high water."
Georgia officials have been working to deepen the 30-mile Savannah River shipping channel for 17 years. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave its final approval a year ago. Biden's support comes as Georgia port officials wait for Congress to lift a spending cap placed on the project in 1999 that's now almost $200 million short of the latest estimate. Then it's up to Congress and the president to fund 70 percent of the cost.
The South Carolina project is awaiting a final recommendation from the Corps that is expected in 2015, said Brig. Gen. Ed Jackson, who commands the South Atlantic Region of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But a favorable recommendation would still require Congress to earmark money for the project.
The vice president's visits gave port officials in Georgia and South Carolina a chance to cite White House support for what are considered top economic development projects in both states.
"I think it's safe to say we've got the full backing of the administration to get this project going forward as quickly as it possibly can," said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Biden, who is contemplating a third run for president in 2016, joked about potential employment opportunities as he donned a baseball provided by the Savannah port.
"In case you were wondering, it says Georgia Ports Authority," Biden said. "I may be needing a job."
Bynum reported from Savannah. Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.