Under plan devised by Senate, SPA would compete with other ports for dredging money

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. (right), and State Ports Authority Chief Executive Jim Newsome met in March to discuss the importance of deepening Charleston Harbor from 45 feet to 50 feet.

ALLYSON BIRD

With money for Charleston's harbor-deepening study in question, lawmakers in the U.S. Senate have created a plan that could keep the project moving ahead in the federal budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The final outcome will depend upon how the House of Representatives and Senate reconcile their spending bills for energy and water projects. But if the provision survives that process -- and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Thursday he expects it will -- the State Ports Authority could compete for the money that's needed.

"There is no more important issue for us," said SPA spokesman Byron Miller. "Every single year, this project needs to be funded, so every means and measure is important."

At issue is funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue a study of potentially deepening Charleston Harbor's shipping channel. The SPA has said it is crucial to deepen the harbor from 45 feet to 50 feet to accommodate larger container ships that are becoming the norm.

The entire dredging project could cost $350 million, but the only issue right now is paying for the study, which could use up to $4 million over the next 12 months. The SPA would pay half the cost, matching any federal funding.

Graham said a bipartisan provision approved at the committee level would allow certain ports, including Charleston, to compete for part of $10.5 million for harbor studies.

The provision also includes $30 million for harbor maintenance money and $15 million for inland channel navigation maintenance, which could help the Port of Georgetown address its dredging needs.

"This is a breakthrough for fiscal year 2012 funding on the Port of Charleston," said Graham.

SPA Chief Executive Jim Newsome said the funding concept, which requires that ports compete for the money, is "the first step toward a merit-based harbor-deepening process."

The Senate measure also requires the Army Corps to submit a report within 180 days explaining how the nation's ports should handle the huge ships that will be able to use the Panama Canal once that waterway is expanded in 2014.

The corps has been told to consider the costs and environmental consequences. It also has been directed to determine which deepening efforts will enhance the nation's ability to export goods.

Currently, ports all along the eastern seaboard are pursuing expensive projects so they can handle the larger ships.

Billions in federal money would be needed to complete all the projects sought by ports.