The pace of work to deepen the Charleston Harbor picked up speed Wednesday when the Army Corps of Engineers knocked four years off the project timeline.

Harbor depths

The authorized depth of the Charleston Harbor shipping lane has changed over the years.1760 -- 12 feet1860 -- 17 feet1927 -- 30 feet1940 -- 35 feet1986 -- 40 feet1996 -- 45 feet2020 (est.) -- 50 feet sought

South Carolina port officials and lawmakers cheered the new estimate that, if just about everything goes just right, the harbor could be 5 feet deeper by 2020.

The State Ports Authority wants the channel dredged to a depth of at least 50 feet, and the plan is seen as a top priority for the Port of Charleston and the state’s economy.

That’s because massive container ships from Asia will be able to travel through the Panama Canal when an expansion project there is completed by early 2015, and they require deeper water than Charleston’s 45-foot harbor.

Charleston already receives huge ships that draft 48 feet and carry the equivalent of more than 9,500 20-foot shipping containers, but only when the tide is right.

“The ability to handle large container ships with minimal (tidal) restrictions is important for our future,” SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome said.

The corps had been saying that the deepening project, dubbed Post-45, would likely not be completed before 2024. That timeline had been blasted by critics.

Newsome and other supporters of the deepening project had been particularly frustrated by the corps’ estimates that it could take up to eight years just to study the project and make a recommendation to Congress. Area politicians have noted that U.S. involvement in World War II didn’t last half that long.

On Wednesday, the corps’ area commander said the feasibility-study phase, which began in June 2011, will now take less than five years and will cost $15 million, or $5 million less than had been estimated.

The study is meant to determine what depth is in the nation’s best interest, while evaluating ecological and environmental issues and engineering challenges.

Harbor deepening must be federally authorized, and the federal government typically pays more than 40 percent of the total costs, estimated at about $320 million for Charleston.

The state Legislature decided this year to set aside $300 million for the deepening project, in case federal money for construction is not available.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said that decision by lawmakers is why the project timeline was reduced.

“I think that is directly responsible for the timeline being compressed from eight to four years,” he said at an SPA news conference.

The corps has said there are not currently any financial constraints on the project. Construction money would not be needed for years, and only after a study and action by Congress.

Before the SPA’s media event, Lt. Col. Edward Chamberlayne, commander of the corps’ Charleston District office, was asked if the Legislature’s funding decision moved the timeline. His response was simply, “No.”

Chamberlayne said the new timeline for the study reflects a national effort to prioritize projects and streamline processes. While the total project timeline has been reduced by four years, the corps has said all along that the study phase would take five to eight years, or even as few as four years.

Chamberlayne said the schedule for the entire project was shortened by finding ways to overlap different aspects of studying and engineering the deepening, by scaling back some of the data collection in favor of “educated assumptions,” and by cutting an estimate of construction time by a year.

“The Charleston Harbor deepening is now a case study, a frontrunner, in how to streamline our studies,” Chamberlayne said.

Years-long studies have been the norm for U.S. ports seeking deeper water. The Port of Savannah has been seeking federal approval for deepening the Savannah River since 1996, and a final report was issued by the corps in Georgia this year.

Georgia’s project is the subject of multiple legal challenges filed in South Carolina, where many see a deeper port in Savannah as a competitive threat to the Port of Charleston.

“We could be on our way to a post-45 harbor quicker than our neighbors to the south, who I hear has run into some problems” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of the state’s Port Oversight Commission.

South Carolina’s Savannah River Maritime Commission is among the parties that have filed legal actions holding up Georgia’s project.

South Carolina’s port leader applauded the new timeline for Charleston’s project, but he said 2020 is still too long to wait.

“I think we can do more,” Newsome said. “The harbor was (last) deepened in 2004, and not a lot has changed.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.