Legislature pledges full funding for Charleston harbor deepening
The South Carolina legislature has decided that deepening Charleston Harbor is so important to the economy that the state will pay the full cost, if necessary.
The decision to create a $300 million deepening fund will not necessarily get the waterway to the desired depth of 50 feet any faster, however.
The Port of Charleston, like its rivals, is working to deepen its shipping channel to accommodate ever-larger container ships. Charleston Harbor is now 45 feet deep, and the plan is to dredge the bottom by at least five feet.
Studies of the project began in 2010, and the Army Corps of Engineers has said it could take until 2024 to get through studies, approval and the deepening work.
“We haven’t been delayed by money so far, so adding more money won’t speed it up,” said Sean McBride, a spokesman for the Corps in Charleston. “We still have to follow all of our regulations and laws.”
Port and state officials have called the long timeline unacceptable.
State Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome said the state’s funding commitment will make it clear to port customers that the deepening project will happen.
An expansion of the Panama Canal, which is scheduled for completion in 2014, will make it more financially feasible for container mega-ships from Asia to reach U.S. East Coast. Ports are scrambling to deepen their harbors to accommodate the huge vessels regardless of the tide.
“It would be hard to overstate how much our economic well-being depends on this project,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and the SPA’s Review and Oversight Commission.
The state funding set-aside would pay for the all the deepening work only if federal dollars do not come through.
Under the current formula, the federal government would be expected to pay $120 million of the estimated $300 million cost.
The state House and Senate previously had set aside $180 million for dredging, representing the state’s share.
The budget including the $300 million measure next goes to Gov. Nikki Haley, whose office said she hasn’t had an opportunity to analyze the spending plan.
“We are tremendously grateful for the forward-thinking leadership in our legislature for recognizing how vital this project is to the entire state,” said Bill Stern, chairman of the SPA board.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.