Corps of Engineers official: Study into deepening Charleston Harbor remains on track

The Army Corps of Engineers’ study that precedes the proposed deepening of Charleston Harbor for larger vessels remains on track and within its $13 million budget.

That was the message Army Corps Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne said about the harbor-deepening project, dubbed Post-45, during a public update meeting Tuesday night at The Citadel.

“As we have said last year and is consistent today, by September 2015 we will complete our recommendation to Congress to say what is best in our opinion ... based on a full set of expertise, what is best for the nation,” Chamberlayne said. “We are holding firm to the deadline that has been set for us.”

Chamberlayne also added that the Corps’ feasibility study will not be impacted by the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration, but he cautioned that additional federal dollars are needed before dredging could start.

Tuesday marked the first public status report on the Army Corps’ feasibility study since December 2011.

The study, started in June 2011, analyzes issues such as economics and engineering of dredging the harbor. It’s one of the first stages in the lengthy process of deepening the harbor so it can accommodate the longer ships expected from an expanded Panama Canal to be completed in 2015.

The State Ports Authority wants to deepen the shipping lane an additional 5 feet from its current 45 feet.

Charleston Harbor can receive big ships that draft 48 feet and carry the equivalent of more than 9,500 20-foot shipping containers, but only when the tide is high enough.

Chamberlayne said Tuesday that the Army Corps’ study remains on track, but further pre-dredging analysis remains up to the federal government.

The Army Corps’ feasibility study is followed by a preconstruction engineering and design phase, which is the last step before the actual dredges start pulling earth from the bottom of the harbor.

Chamberlayne said the agency has not received federal funds to begin the preconstruction engineering and design phase, which is planned to start in 2015.

“We have the authority but not the appropriations,” Chamberlayne said on Tuesday.

Several ports along the East and Gulf coasts are jockeying for federal dollars to deepen their shipping channels to accommodate larger ships.

Last summer, the Obama administration included Charleston as part of its “We Can’t Wait” initiative to help speed up dredging projects.

That meant the Army Corps has made the feasibility study a top priority, which includes doing it in four years. That’s half the time and $7 million less than initially planned.

To keep on the timeline, the agency has used a combination of extensive analysis and some educated assumptions, backed by data collected in previous studies, Chamberlayne has said.

The draft of the feasibility study is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2014, and a final version is expected to be submitted in 2015, Chamberlayne said.

The deepening is scheduled to be completed by 2020, with the total cost of as much as $350 million to be shared by the state and federal governments.

The S.C. General Assembly has set aside $300 million for the project, just in case the U.S. government doesn’t contribute its share.

Several local maritime officials on Tuesday applauded the Army Corps’ progress with the project.

“I think they are doing a fantastic job and it’s on Congress in terms of the authorization and the funding,” said Pam Zaresk, president of the nonprofit Maritime Association of South Carolina. “All of us will keep the pressure on that as much as we can because that is key to this.”

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