Obama budget includes harbor maintenance funds SPA waits for Congress to OK $509M deepening

The State Ports Authority is eager to see Charleston Harbor deepened to 52 feet so that the waterway can handle longer, heavier cargo ships.

President Barack Obama’s proposed $4.1 trillion budget for the 2017 fiscal year includes money for Charleston Harbor maintenance dredging, but funding for the plan to deepen the waterway to 52 feet is still awaiting authorization from Congress.

The president’s budget proposal, released Tuesday, would set aside $13.9 million for the annual work needed to keep the harbor at its current depth of 45 feet. Another $6.4 million would go toward a Cooper River project that diverts silt away from the harbor. About $1 million will go toward inspections and project reviews.

All told, Obama’s proposal includes about $21.3 million for South Carolina projects overseen by the Charleston office of the Army Corps of Engineers. That figure is likely to change as the proposal makes its way through Congress and a final budget is approved for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Construction of the harbor deepening is not yet eligible for funding because Congress first must approve the project. An Army Corps document called the “chief’s report” recommends federal lawmakers authorize the $509 million project. Once that happens, it is expected money will flow in for the dredging over several years.

The State Ports Authority hopes work will begin soon after Congressional approval, using $307 million in state money already set aside to pay for part of the harbor deepening.

Pre-construction work, including engineering and design, is underway, and the Army Corps said Tuesday it has $225,000 for that work available in its fiscal 2016 work plan. Lisa Metheney, the Army Corps’ chief civilian, said the work plan provides enough money for ship simulations, studies and analyses planned through Sept. 30.

Unlike Obama’s proposed budget, which could change, money in the work plan is already available for use.

“Having the Charleston Harbor deepening project continue to receive design money is incredibly important,” Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Newsome said the agency “is deeply appreciative that the Army Corps and (Obama’s) administration recognize the project as a critical infrastructure improvement for our region and nation. ... We look forward to Congressional authorization and are well-positioned as the Southeast’s most capable, big ship-ready harbor.”

At 52 feet, Charleston Harbor will be able to accommodate longer, heavier container ships traveling to the East Coast after the Panama Canal completes an major expansion.

The Army Corps’ work plan also includes nearly $2.9 million for raising dikes at the Clouter Creek dredge-disposal site, ensuring that site will be available to receive harbor-dredge material once the deepening project is authorized.

Another $17 million in the work plan is available for maintenance dredging of Charleston Harbor unrelated to the deepening project.

There is no money for dredging Georgetown Harbor in either the president’s proposed budget or the Army Corps’ work plan, leaving the future of the Port of Georgetown in doubt.

Georgetown’s waterway has an authorized depth of 27 feet, but the fast-silting harbor currently stands at between 18 feet and 20 feet. The Army Corps estimates it would take $60 million to restore the harbor to 27 feet and another $5 million to $6 million annually to keep it at that depth.

“Georgetown Harbor, because of its low use, does not compete well for maintenance funds,” Metheney said.

The Army Corps plans to spend $500,000 on environmental compliance work to get a dredge disposal site ready should money be set aside in the future for harbor deepening in Georgetown.

“We want to be prepared in the event that funding becomes available,” Metheney said.

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