Smooth sailing ahead $1.3M in federal funds for harbor project helps clear way for pre-construction work

The MSC Charleston, shown at the State Ports Authority’s Wando-Welch Terminal in 2011, is an example of a post-Panamax cargo ship. The SPA said it needs a deeper harbor so it can to handle these bigger vessels regardless of the tide.

A plan to deepen Charleston Harbor’s shipping channel received $1.3 million in federal funds Wednesday for engineering and design work.

The money is from allocations the Army Corps of Engineers had left over from its 2015 fiscal year, said Glenn Jeffries, spokeswoman for the agency’s Charleston office. It will allow the so-called pre-construction phase to begin as soon as a design agreement is finalized with the State Ports Authority.

“The allocation of federal funding for the (pre-construction) phase of our deepening project is tremendous,” Bill Stern, SPA chairman, said in a statement.

The deepening will enable Charleston to compete for huge “post-Panamax” containerships carrying up to 14,000 cargo boxes that will call on East Coast ports after the Panama Canal is expanded next year. The proposal to dredge the harbor to 52 feet from 45 was unanimously approved last week by the Army Corps’ Civil Works Review Board in Washington, D.C.

The next step is for Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army Corps’ chief of engineers, to sign a “chief’s report,” expected in September, that will be presented to Congress for funding.

The SPA hopes to have the deepening completed by the end of the decade.

The pre-construction stage is when engineers and other experts will finalize the design of the Army Corps’ recommended modifications to the federal shipping channel. Work completed during the two-year phase will include ship simulations, finalizing cost estimates, drawing up specifications and project refinements.

Total pre-construction engineering and design costs are estimated at $4.5 million, divided equally between federal and state sources. The General Assembly set aside South Carolina’s share in 2012, so the pre-construction phase is now about 80 percent funded.

“The container shipping industry’s deployment of big ships is evident, and there is no question that the Southeast needs a harbor deeper than 50 feet to accommodate fully loaded post-Panamax container ships,” said Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO.

The Port of Charleston “will soon be able to handle these vessels without tidal restriction, ensuring we can support growing volume needs,” Newsome said.

The deepening project’s overall cost is estimated at $509 million.

The federal government and the state would contribute $166 million and $343 million, respectively. South Carolina lawmakers have already has set aside the state’s portion. Also, the SPA will spend $5 million toward the protection of the Cooper River corridor in an effort to help offset environmental impacts.

Upon completion, Charleston will have the deepest harbor on the East Coast. A recent study shows the larger post-Panamax vessels will be making frequent visits to the East Coast once the Panama Canal expansion makes room for them to navigate the waterway. That study estimates an additional 1 million to 2 million cargo containers from Asia could be unloaded at East Coast ports after the project in Central America is completed.

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