Harbor deepening may get go-ahead soon Sen. Graham says appropriations bill ‘another step forward’ for project

The State Ports Authority is waiting for Congress to authorize a Charleston Harbor deepening project that would accommodate large cargo ships traveling to East Coast ports through the Panama Canal.

A plan to give the Port of Charleston the deepest harbor on the East Coast could be authorized this year even if Congress doesn’t approve legislation normally needed for such projects to get the green light.

A Senate committee Thursday approved an appropriations bill for energy and water projects that includes a provision allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of up to eight new projects during the coming fiscal year. At least one project must be for environmental infrastructure and a second must be for a navigation project. The other six projects would be left up to the Army Corps’ discretion.

“Sometimes we’ve needed to secure additional money for the project. Other times we’ve needed to push the (Obama) administration to keep the project on track or obtain the proper authorization,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a member of the appropriations committee. “This provision creates a pathway for us to obtain the authorization we need to move into the construction phase.”

The Senate bill includes about $227 million for the construction projects. Those projects that benefit the national economy, create jobs, promote economic development and allow for cost-sharing by a nonfederal sponsor are supposed to be given priority. Graham said the Charleston Harbor deepening meets all of the criteria.

“It’s always been our goal to keep the harbor-deepening project on track and completed as quickly as possible,” Graham said. “We’ve taken another step forward in that endeavor today.”

Committees in both chambers this week approved appropriations bills for energy and water projects for fiscal 2017, which begins on Oct. 1. The bills provide record funding of $6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, including $1.3 billion for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund that pays to dredge Charleston Harbor and other waterways nationwide to their permitted depths.

While millions of dollars have been spent on studies, design work and engineering, Congress has not yet authorized the Charleston Harbor dredging project, which would deepen the shipping channel to 52 feet from 45 feet. Such authorization usually is given through the Water Resources Development Act, although there is no guarantee the act will be approved each year.

Jim Newsome, CEO of the State Ports Authority, said the proposed funding increase to the Army Corps “is a positive sign of Congress’ support for port infrastructure projects.”

“We are optimistic that our deepening project is on track to receive authorization and appropriations this year,” he said.

The committees approved their bills without amendments so they could move more quickly to the House and Senate, where they will be debated and amended before a consensus is reached.

The similar House and Senate versions would provide about $37.5 billion for a range of projects related to energy, nuclear security, research, environmental cleanup and Army Corps projects related to water resources. Both bills include more money than last year’s authorization and what was included in President Obama’s proposed budget for the coming year.

The SPA wants to deepen Charleston Harbor to accommodate larger containerships that will be visiting the East Coast once the Panama Canal expansion is completed this summer.

The cost will be split between the federal government’s share of $209 million and South Carolina’s contribution of $300 million. Lawmakers already have set aside all of the money needed for the state’s portion.

The harbor deepening is expected to be completed by 2020, about the same time the SPA will open a new container terminal at the former Navy base in North Charleston.

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