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Charleston port on its way to East Coast's deepest harbor with federal dollars in hand

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COSCO Development (copy)

Containerized cargo moving on big ships like the COSCO Development, which visited the Port of Charleston on May 13, is expected to help the State Ports Authority set back-to-back records for freight moving along its terminals. File/Provided

A plan to dredge Charleston Harbor to 52 feet cleared its final hurdle this week with the Army Corps of Engineers setting aside $17.5 million in federal funds for the project that will give the Port of Charleston the deepest navigation channel on the East Coast.

"The significance of this funding for the timeline of our deepening project cannot be overstated — it is tremendous news for Charleston," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority.

The federal dollars will come from the Army Corps' fiscal 2017 work plan, part of President Donald Trump's spending proposal, which details all of the nation's projects that will receive civil works funding from the agency.

The $525 million dredging project will get most of its money from $300 million that has already been set aside by South Carolina legislators. The federal government will pay the remaining $225 million through upcoming budget appropriations.

The project is a key part of the SPA's plan to improve infrastructure to accommodate large container ships traveling through an expanded Panama Canal to the East Coast. That plan also includes a new container terminal, intermodal rail yard, crane and other equipment and improvements to an existing wharf.

All told, the SPA plans to spend more than $1.5 billion in coming years to lure so-called neo-Panamax vessels carrying 13,000 or more cargo boxes per trip.

The first of those big ships, the COSCO Development visited the Port of Charleston earlier this month and the maritime facility expects to see at least two weekly calls from neo-Panamax vessels by the end of this year.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the partnership between state and federal governments likely gave Charleston Harbor deepening precedence over other projects nationwide.

"In the Army Corps portion of the budget, I think the Trump Administration has drawn a line — if you want your harbor deepened you better be willing to put up money on the front end to prove your interest," Graham said. "They want to reward innovative approaches like Charleston."

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Gov. Henry McMaster said the project will "supercharge our already vigorous economic growth opportunities."

A 2015 economic development study shows the Port of Charleston generates $53 billion in annual economic activity supporting 187,200 jobs statewide. 

"Getting the Charleston port's harbor deepening project included in the ... work plan when important projects all over the country were fighting for the same dollars, is a major breakthrough for our state," McMaster said.

The project began in 2011 when a Corps of Engineers study determined there is federal interest in deepening Charleston Harbor and cited the project as a best value for public dollars. It has progressed more quickly than any federal deepening project to date. Congress authorized the project late last year, but work could not begin until federal money was appropriated.

The project is expected to be finished by 2019, about the same time the SPA's new Leatherman Terminal opens on the former Navy Base in North Charleston.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, called the federal funding "tremendous" news that "reflects years of hard work."

"South Carolinians will see the positive impacts of our port project for decades to come," said Grooms, who chairs a legislative commission that has oversight of the SPA.

Charleston Harbor is currently 45 feet deep, and large container ships must wait for rising tides before they can enter and leave the port. A 52-foot depth will allow ships the size of the Development to visit at any time of day. That gives the Port of Charleston an advantage over other East Coast facilities with shallower channels and lets ships haul heavier loads to and from the port.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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