Next harbor deepening project gets boost

Daniel Brock
August 3, 2010

Further harbor deepening at the Port of Charleston moved closer to becoming a reality on Thursday as federal lawmakers approved crucial studies examining the project.

Language passed by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee authorizes expedited reviews of dredging work that would push the harbor beyond its current depths.

U.S. Rep Henry Brown added the language to the Water Resources Development Act of 2010, which was introduced and referred to the infrastructure committee on Wednesday.

The Port of Charleston is a Southeast-leading 45 feet deep, enough to handle some of the world’s largest cargo ships. But those vessels, and larger ones likely to be drawn here after the Panama Canal’s 2014 expansion, are currently constrained by tidal patterns.

“The next deepening will take Charleston beyond 45 and 47 feet (at the entrance channel), opening the port to all classes of the world’s most modern vessels under any tidal condition,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority.

The harbor’s depth was last increased in 2004 from 40 feet to 45.

SPA officials lauded Brown on Thursday for his work. Bill Stern, the SPA’s board chairman, said Brown “keenly understands that shipping channels are national infrastructure, essential to the nation’s economy and defense, as well as vital to jobs in South Carolina.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee did not include a $400,000 earmark request for harbor deepening studies in a markup last week of its Energy and Water appropriations bill.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would continue to push for the funds. He also referenced figures that estimate the port is responsible for 260,800 jobs in South Carolina, $11.8 billion in wages, and $1.5 billion in state and local taxes.

Graham said that because of timing issues with the Army Corps of Engineers’ handling of dredging projects, Charleston will be at a competitive disadvantage if it does not receive the earmark this year.

Charleston’s East Coast competitors will have a leg up, Graham said, because they have already secured study funding in the legislation while Charleston had not.

The Georgia Ports Authority agreed earlier this month to pay more than $20 million to extend Savannah’s harbor depth to 48 feet. A provision in the bill introduced Wednesday provides authorization for construction of the project, with $405 million in federal funding and $270 million in nonfederal funding.

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