Charleston Harbor dredging included in Obama’s budget

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal includes money to maintain the depth of Charleston Harbor but no money for deepening it to 52 feet.

President Barack Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget includes money for maintenance dredging of Charleston Harbor and other area projects but leaves an initiative to dredge Georgetown’s harbor in jeopardy.

No money was earmarked for deepening the Georgetown port to 27 feet — a depth officials say is crucial to luring more business — and that means the project won’t move forward unless Congress finds at least $9 million to fund the federal portion of the $33.5 million plan.

“It’s very unlikely that it can be done without the federal government’s money,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority. “It’s going to take federal money to make this work.”

The president’s budget does include $17 million for harbor maintenance in Charleston and another $6.9 million for routine operations of the Cooper River rediversion project.

The budget does not include funds for deepening Charleston Harbor to 52 feet from 45 feet, but there is already enough money on hand to complete that project’s feasibility study. That includes the Army Corps of Engineers’ chief’s report, which will be finished this fall and will be used to lobby Congress for money to pay for the deepening.

“As the Corps completes the chief’s report and moves into the design phase, we remain confident that the necessary federal funding to match the already committed $300 million in state funds will be provided to begin construction on what will be the deepest channels on the East Coast,” Newsome said.

The total cost of the Charleston deepening project has been estimated at $509 million, with 60 percent of the funds coming from the state. If approved, the federal government would fund the remaining 40 percent.

Bill Stern, chairman of the SPA, said the president’s budget “highlights the valuable role South Carolina plays in the global marketplace.”

Georgetown County voters last fall approved a 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for infrastructure projects, including dredging that port, which handles breakbulk and bulk cargo. The fast-silting harbor has limited operations at the port and forced some former customers to move to ports with deeper water. Newsome said a 27-foot depth would accommodate half of the bulk ship fleet currently in use and would help the port top 1 million tons of cargo each year. The Georgetown port moved 328,136 tons during the first half of this fiscal year, which started in July.

State lawmakers have set aside $18.5 million for the Georgetown dredging, and the sales tax is expected to generate another $6 million, with the federal government counted on to supply the rest.

Sel Hemingway, Georgetown County’s administrator, said it is possible state money could be used to start the three-year dredging project while the county waits on federal funds to come through.

“We certainly will need it no later than year two,” Hemingway said.

Newsome said the $33.5 million project cost is an old figure and dredging costs likely will run much higher, although the state cannot commit any more money to the project. Also, there is no money set aside for annual maintenance dredging of the port to keep it from filling in again if it is deepened to 27 feet.

U.S. Rep Tom Rice, R-S.C., helped rewrite the Water Resources Reform and Development Act this year to make 10 percent of the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund available for dredging at small ports like Georgetown. The fund has a surplus of more than $7 billion, but waterways from across the country would be competing for the money.

In addition to the Charleston and Cooper River projects, the president’s budget sets aside:

$530,000 for dredging the entrance to Town Creek near McClellanville.

$875,000 for project condition surveys.

$100,000 in caretaker funds for the Intracoastal Waterway.

$65,000 for inspections of completed works.

In addition, nearly $2.9 million was allocated for raising the dikes of the “middle cell” of the Clouter Creek dredge disposal site, which has four cells in total. Raising the dikes will ensure the site is available for receiving material dredged from Charleston Harbor.

Lt. Col. John Litz, the Army Corps’ district commander in Charleston, said in a statement that the president’s budget will help the agency “efficiently and effectively complete our missions.”

“Continued funding of the construction, maintenance and operation of critical civil works infrastructure projects is an investment in the nation’s economy, security and quality of life; now and in the future,” Litz said.

The president’s proposal kicks off negotiations with Congress for a budget that will fund federal operations for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. House Republican leaders have said they intend to move their own budget proposal through Congress by the end of April.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_