With federal funding uncertain, the State Ports Authority has agreed to provide $9.5 million to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue a study of the possible deepening of the Charleston shipping channel.

The money represents an advance payment of the SPA's 50 percent share of the estimated cost of the study. The SPA board agreed Monday to provide the funding to the Army Corps without waiting for Congress to provide federal matching funds.

"Rather than them giving us a dollar each time we get a (federal) dollar, they are allowed to give us their share, up to $9.5 million, up front," said Lisa Metheney, assistant chief of the programs and project management division for the Army Corps' Charleston District. "We don't know what will be in the (federal) fiscal year 2012 budget."

Bill Stern, chairman of the SPA board, said $2 million will be provided to the federal permitting agency right away, with more to follow as needed.

The SPA believes the Charleston shipping channel must be deepened to at least 50 feet, from the current 45 feet, in order for the port to remain competitive and accommodate larger container ships. Ships requiring a depth in excess of 45 feet are expected to call on East Coast ports in increasing numbers when an expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.

The deepening study is estimated to take five to seven years, though the SPA and state and federal lawmakers have urged the Corps to speed up the pace. Engineering, design, and construction to deepen the channel could take an additional six years, and the total project could cost $350 million, the Army Corps has estimated.

A proposal approved at the committee level in the U.S. Senate earlier this month would allow ports to compete for a limited pool of federal funding for harbor studies, and that could be a method by which the SPA could pursue the needed federal matching funds.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, called the committee-approved provision "a breakthrough for fiscal year 2012 funding on the Port of Charleston" after Senate action two weeks ago, but it's not a done deal until it's approved by the full Congress.

The next step for the Charleston study will be a series of meetings in October and November to discuss the scope of the project.

Other business

State Ports Authority operating revenues came in slightly below expectations in June and July, the first two months of the agency's 2012 fiscal year. At $21.5 million, revenues were running ahead of the last fiscal year, but 3% below budget projections.

SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said that due to the weak U.S. economy and other factors, exports have now drawn nearly even with imports, and he expects the trend to continue in the near term.

"I expect exports to pick up between now and the end of the year," Newsome told the SPA board Monday. "The dollar is weak, and the Chinese economy is still strong."

Productivity at the Port of Charleston, measured by crane moves per hour, has continued to improve, the SPA board was told. And while container shipments were below projections in the first two months of the SPA's fiscal year, shipments of noncontainerized cargo measured in pier tons were 45% higher than expected.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.