Corps panel OKs harbor deepening

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A plan that will let the Port of Charleston compete for huge containerships that will call on East Coast ports following next year’s Panama Canal expansion moved forward Thursday, and Congress could discuss funding for the project as early as this fall.

The proposal to deepen Charleston’s harbor from 45 feet to 52 feet was unanimously approved by The Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works Review Board in Washington, D.C.

The next step calls for Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army Corps’ chief of engineers, to sign a “chief’s report,” expected in September, that will be presented to Congress for funding. The State Ports Authority, which is in charge of the project, hopes to have the deepening completed by the end of this decade.

“A competitive, growing port brings tremendous economic benefits to our state and our region,” said Bill Stern, chairman of the SPA’s board of directors. “South Carolina, the Southeastern region and our nation will enjoy the positive impacts of the Charleston harbor deepening for years to come.”

The project’s cost is estimated at $509 million. The federal government and the state would contribute $166 million and $343 million, respectively. South Carolina’s General Assembly already has set aside the state’s portion. The SPA also will spend $5 million toward the protection of the Cooper River corridor in an effort to help mitigate any environmental impact the project might have.

The deepening will let ships carrying up to 14,000 cargo boxes, called post-Panamax vessels, traverse the harbor at any time of day. Those ships will be making frequent visits to the East Coast once the Panama Canal expansion makes room for them to navigate the waterway. A recent study shows an additional 1 million to 2 million cargo containers could be unloaded at East Coast ports from Asian countries once the canal is widened.

Currently, the biggest ship that can make its way through the harbor carries about 9,500 cargo boxes.

“Deepening the Charleston Harbor to 52 feet is absolutely essential to the economic prosperity of both the region and the state of South Carolina,” Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “The ability of the port to be a viable competitive advantage to the region’s businesses hinges on the port’s ability to handle larger ocean vessels.”

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley County, called the Port of Charleston “the economic engine of South Carolina” and said it has played a key role in attracting manufacturers such as Volvo Cars, which will open a $500 million auto plant near Ridgeville in 2017.

The BMW plant in Greer has helped South Carolina become the nation’s top exporter of vehicles, with between 800 and 1,000 BMWs moving through the port’s Columbus Street Terminal every day. Last year, the Port of Charleston exported more than $29 billion worth of goods to foreign countries.

“Deepening the harbor is essential to our state’s economic vitality and is in our national interest,” said Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

A study this year by commercial real estate giant CBRE Group showed Charleston’s port is the fastest-growing seaport in the nation, with cargo imports and exports accelerating at twice the national average. Volume at the Port of Charleston is expected to set a facility record next year, with 1.16 million cargo containers, a projected 7.2 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s total.

“Once deepening to 52 feet is realized, Charleston will offer the deepest harbor on the East Coast,” said Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO.

With about $60 billion worth of cargo crossing the port’s docks each year, “the Port of Charleston is our state’s most important economic asset and harbor deepening is our state’s most important economic development project,” said Pam Zaresk, president of the Maritime Association of South Carolina.

In addition to the deepening project, the SPA is spending more than $700 million to build a new cargo terminal at the former Navy base in North Charleston to accommodate the larger ships. That terminal will be able to handle 1.4 million cargo boxes each year. Its first phase should be completed at about the same time as the harbor deepening project.

“Today was a big step in the process for Charleston Harbor to be deepened,” said Lt. Col. John Litz, commander of the Army Corps’ Charleston District. “Having the approval from the Civil Works Review Board allows us to stay on track with our timeline and move forward with our deepening recommendation.”

Efforts to deepen the Charleston Harbor began in 2011, with the S.C. Legislature setting aside the full estimated state share of the deepening construction costs two years later. The project also was named one of President Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” initiatives in 2013.

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