Geithner lowers estimates

Tim Geithner

The federal government's new $1 trillion spending plan includes some money for the Port of Charleston's deepening study, under a provision proposed earlier by S.C. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The $4.2 million for Charleston's harbor-deepening study will help ensure no time is lost on the lengthy study process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it could take five years and about $20 million to study the dredging plan and decide if it's feasible and in the nation's interest. The federal government is responsible for half the cost.

The study began in June and had been advance-funded by the State Ports Authority for about the first two years, due to a lack of federal funds. The availability of the $4.2 million preserves the SPA's ability to step in with advance funding again -- the SPA is limited to paying for half -- should federal funds be unavailable later.

At a public meeting Tuesday in Charleston to help determine the scope of the study, Corps officials said it could be 2024 before the shipping channel is actually deepened, and that's assuming the study is favorable and the money's available.

SPA President Jim Newsome said the port needs to be deepened sooner, and Graham agreed Friday.

Looking ahead, Charleston would need more than $300 million to deepen the channel to 50 feet to accommodate larger container ships, with the federal government paying for 40 percent of the construction.

Savannah is seeking more than twice that amount for its waterways, and other ports are pursuing deepening projects as well.

A provision Graham included in the spending bill requires the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate ports with the goal of developing a national plan to deal with larger container ships. Such vessels are expected to become more common on the East Coast when an expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.

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"What I'm trying to do is create a merit-based vision," Graham said. "We've got issues to overcome, but this is a breakthrough."

The spending bill also includes about $19 million for ongoing maintenance of the Charleston shipping lanes, and funding that could be used to maintain the Port of Georgetown and the Intracoastal Waterway. In total, the bill contains $461 million for port projects, maintenance and coastal erosion.

Graham said the inclusion of funding was made possible with bipartisan support in the Senate.