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Dredges overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers are working on deepening Charleston Harbor to 52 feet so it can better accommodate large container ships traveling through the Panama Canal to the Port of Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

President Donald Trump included $138 million in his budget for the coming year to help deepen Charleston Harbor to 52 feet so it can handle heavier container ships.

The project, in the works since 2011, had never been included in a president's budget until now. The U.S. Army Corps last year revised a formula that measures the project's economic benefit, putting it above the threshold needed for consideration.

"This allows us to stay on schedule with the deepening," the federal agency's Charleston office said on Facebook.

Dredging started a year ago and the State Ports Authority, which owns and operates the Port of Charleston, has said it hopes to finish by the time a new container terminal opens in North Charleston in late 2021.

Digging the harbor to a 52-foot depth is necessary, the authority says, to accommodate bigger, heavier ships carrying more cargo to and from the region.

In addition to dredging and a new terminal, the SPA is buying new cranes and refurbishing its busy Wando Welch Terminal.

"By 2021, the authority and the state will have invested more than $2 billion to support the booming growth of both population and manufacturing in the region," said Jim Newsome, the authority's president and CEO.

Newsome said a deeper harbor will let the port handle container ships carrying up to 18,000 20-foot cargo boxes without tidal restrictions.

Money allocated in the coming year will help pay for dredging the harbor's inner channel to Wando Welch, where the turning basin will be widened to 1,650 feet. Contracts to dredge the harbor's 20-mile-long entrance channel were awarded in 2017.

The deepening project had been omitted from previous president's budgets because its benefit-to-cost ratio — which measure the federal government's return on infrastructure investment — was too low. The Army Corps revised the project's formula last year, giving it a 6.4 ration. That means that for every $1 the feds invest, the project will return $6.40 in economic benefit.

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That made the $558 million dredging project eligible for Trump's budget, which was released this week. Inclusion in the budget also means Congress can appropriate additional money directly to the project through its Energy and Water bill.

Until now, the project has relied on $66 million in discretionary funds the Army Corps gets, $300 million set aside by South Carolina legislators and a $50 million loan approved last year by the General Assembly.

The Port of Charleston has seen record growth in recent years, with the region's population boom driving imports and South Carolina manufacturers like BMW and Michelin exporting their products overseas. More than 2.3 million cargo boxes moved through the port's terminals in 2018 — 6.4 percent better than the previous year and an all-time high.

The port's expansion is mirrored throughout the Southeast, with Norfolk and Savannah also spending billions to upgrade their facilities for the big container ships. Trump included $130 million for Savannah's dredging project in his budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_