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Port deepening on a fast track Trade audience hears of funding, urgency

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Port deepening on a fast track Trade audience hears of funding, urgency

“We think we’re the best value in the Southeast for harbor deepening," says SPA chief Jim Newsome, who is a featured speaker at this year's S.C. International Trade Conference.

ISLE OF PALMS — What difference a year has made.

When the S.C. International Trade Conference convened a year ago, just $150,000 in federal funding had been committed to Charleston’s harbor deepening plan, and studies were expected to take up to 8 years to complete.

On Monday, when this year’s conference began, local officials were pleased to tell an international business audience that the White House pledged this summer that all federal reviews of the Charleston’s plan will be completed by September 2015.

That means the harbor could potentially be deepened by 2019, five years earlier than first estimated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The plan to dredge the harbor to 50 feet or more is aimed at accommodating larger container ships, which will be able to reach Southeast ports via the Panama Canal starting in 2015, after the canal is widened and deepened.

“I believe the urgency bell has been rung, as far as the need to deepen harbors,” said S.C. State Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome.

The federal study of Charleston’s harbor deepening plan is now fully funded, and years have been sliced off the timeline for deepening the shipping channel.

Lt. Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne, who is in charge of the Charleston District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said multiple contracts have been awarded for the study and some work has been completed. The review will look at things such as how deepening the harbor could affect fresh and saltwater marshes, and the movement of salt water up the Cooper and Wando rivers.

Other port deepening projects have been advancing as well, but Newsome said there may ultimately not be enough taxpayer money, or enough justification, to deepen every Southeast port.

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“We think we’re the best value in the Southeast for harbor deepening,” Newsome said, showing the audience a chart comparing the Port of Savannah’s $650 million deepening plan to Charleston’s, which could cost $300 million to $350 million.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, reminded the trade conference audience that South Carolina’s legislature has set aside $300 million to pay for the harbor deepening work, which is expected to follow the $13 million study. That’s $120 million more than the state is expected to need, but the additional money would cover the expected federal share of the cost, in case federal funding does not become available.

The outgoing CEO of the Panama Canal Authority, Alberto Aleman Zubieta, is scheduled to speak today at the conference being held at Wild Dunes Resort on the Isle of Palms.

Zubieta also addressed the conference last year, explaining how the $5.25 billion expansion project will allow ships carrying the equivalent of up to 14,000 20-foot-long containers to move through the canal.

East Coast ports in the U.S. are racing to deepen shipping channels and raise bridges in anticipation of the giant container ships from Asia that will be arriving in several years via the canal.

Grooms said that deepening the harbor, and increasing trade, is one way South Carolina can address the state’s high level of residents living in poverty.

“We’re committed to increasing income levels for all South Carolinians,” he said. “We’re committed to seeing this harbor deepened.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.

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