Senate to weigh approval for Charleston Harbor deepening project

A containership moves up Charleston Harbor’s shipping channel. The U.S. Senate introduced a bill this week that would authorize deepening the waterway to 52 feet to accommodate larger cargo vessels.

A bipartisan bill that would authorize deepening Charleston Harbor to 52 feet so larger containerships can call on the Port of Charleston has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

This year’s version of the Water Resources Development Act identifies $4.5 billion worth of infrastructure projects in 17 states that would be eligible for funding. The Charleston Harbor dredging would be eligible for $224.3 million under the proposed legislation. Combined with roughly $300 million that has already been set aside by the state Legislature, the bill would authorize enough money to pay for the project.

Authorization is a key step toward getting federal funding, although Congress still must appropriate money for the work.

The bill was sent to the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works and is scheduled for further debate and amendments on Thursday.

“We are optimistic that our deepening project is on track to receive authorization and appropriations this year,” Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said earlier this month.

The bill is the second effort this month to secure federal funding for the work. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, previously included a provision in an appropriations bill for energy and water projects that would let the Army Corps of Engineers start construction of up to eight new projects during the coming fiscal year. The Charleston Harbor deepening was among the projects targeted by that provision.

The Water Resources Development Act typically is approved every two years to fund port improvements, flood protection, dam and levee projects, and environmental restoration.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, introduced the bill with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

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“Each year, $1.4 trillion worth of goods moves through our nation’s ports, and this number will only grow as our trade volume is expected to double within a decade,” Inhofe said. “This year, our bill prioritizes projects that will deepen ports to increase our global competitive advantage, will provide protection from disastrous floodwaters and will help to restore our nation’s critical ecosystems.”

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. The deeper shipping lane is needed because of large containerships that will be traveling through the Panama Canal once its widening is completed this summer.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550.