Port of Georgetown picks up $2M for dredging project

The shipping channel at the Port of Georgetown is about 19 feet deep, or 8 feet less than the permitted depth.

One day after being excluded from the president’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, the Port of Georgetown obtained $2 million in federal funding for a harbor dredging project.

While the money comes as welcome news to port officials, it won’t remove any of the silt that has collected since Georgetown Harbor was last dredged to its permitted depth of 27 feet in 2004 — a depth officials say is crucial to luring more business. The harbor is estimated to be at a depth of about 19 feet.

Brian Williams, chief of programs and civil property management for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the project, said the $2 million will be used to upgrade disposal areas where dredged material will be stored once it is removed from the harbor.

“The $2 million is not going to get us any dredging, but we didn’t expect it to,” Williams said. “The land (disposal) facilities have not been maintained, so the No. 1 priority on the list is getting some work done on those areas.”

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said the money “is a good first step to appropriating the money needed to restore the harbor to 27 feet.”

The project’s cost has been estimated at $33.5 million, a figure Newsome has called “very old” and one that the Army Corps is revisiting. Williams said the agency should have a better idea of how much dredging will have to be done and how much it will cost in the next couple of months.

“We’re performing those calculations now,” he said.

The $2 million is from a civil works budget overseen by the Army Corps’ office in Washington, D.C. The money is coming from the agency’s current fiscal year budget. Williams said there is no guarantee that further money will be available in the coming year, particularly since President Barack Obama did not include the project in his budget.

“As they go through their annual budget go-rounds in D.C., there could be some additional funding available, but it’s too early to tell,” he said.

There also is no money for maintenance dredging of the port, which means it soon would start filling in again even if the 27-foot depth is achieved.

Despite the financial uncertainty, Newsome said the Army Corps’ initial step “reinvigorates the federal government’s investments in Georgetown.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-South Carolina, said he was “thrilled to receive news today” of the Army Corps’ decision.

“Securing this investment was a critical step for returning the harbor to 27 feet,” said Rice, who has worked to secure funding for the project in his district. “The case for the port has been made and I am glad the federal government is on board.”

Port officials have estimated the federal government will have to kick in at least $9.5 million for the project to be completed. Georgetown County voters last fall approved a 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for infrastructure projects, including port dredging.

State lawmakers have set aside $18.5 million for the dredging, and the sales tax is expected to generate another $6 million, with the federal government counted on to supply the rest. If the cost exceeds $33.5 million, the federal government would have to pick up the tab.

The fast-silting harbor has limited operations at the breakbulk and bulk cargo port, forcing some customers to move to ports with deeper water.

Newsome said a 27-foot depth would accommodate half of the bulk ship fleet currently in use and would help the port top 1 million tons of cargo each year. The Georgetown port moved 328,136 tons during the first half of this fiscal year, which started in July.

Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget, announced Monday, kicks off negotiations with Congress for a budget that will fund federal operations for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. House Republican leaders have said they intend to move their own budget proposal through Congress by the end of April.

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