Which company will land $509M project?

A dredging vessel performs maintenance work on the shipping channel leading to the Port of Charleston in March 2012. Private firms met with the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday to hear about plans to deepen the waterway to 52 feet from 45 feet.

A meeting for businesses interested in dredging Charleston Harbor to a 52-foot depth attracted 13 companies to the Army Corps of Engineers offices on Tuesday, as the process for picking a finalist for the $509 million project moves into its initial stages.

The meeting, which was closed to the public, included an hour-long overview of the program designed to give the Port of Charleston the deepest harbor on the East Coast. A question-and-answer session followed, but the conversation among company representatives was stymied by fears of giving their competitors too much information.

“They didn’t say a lot,” said Army Corps spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries, who expects the interested firms will follow up with emails in the coming weeks. It was the first time the federal agency has met with companies interested in the project.

“It was a very beneficial meeting,” Jeffries said, adding that some of the companies have done maintenance dredging for the harbor in the past. “We now understand them and they understand the project. It’s a first step.”

Picking a contractor could take months or years, depending on how quickly Congress authorizes the dredging project and then sets aside money for the work. Authorization would have to come through the Water Resources Development Act, which Congress used to approve every two years. However, legislators recently went through a seven-year stretch, which ended in 2014, without passing the act. There is no guarantee Congress will take up the matter this year.

Once the project is authorized, Congress will have to appropriate money for the dredging — most likely in a series of bills spread over several years.

The project’s cost will be split between the federal government’s share of $209 million and South Carolina’s contribution of $300 million. Lawmakers in Columbia have already set aside all of the money needed for the state’s portion.

Brian Williams, the Army Corps’ deputy of projects and program management, said the agency doesn’t need all of the federal funds at once to start the dredging.

While the project awaits authorization, the Army Corps will continue to refine the specifics — such as looking for beneficial uses for the dredge material that will be pulled from the harbor and conducting harbor simulation studies to make sure the plan’s design works in various tidal, current and weather conditions. Charleston-area harbor pilots will travel to the Army Corps’ test facility in Mississippi this spring to maneuver a virtual containership through the harbor in much the same way airline pilots participate in flight simulations.

While another meeting with the dredging companies isn’t scheduled, Williams said the Army Corps plans to stay in touch with them through follow-up emails and answering questions as the project moves toward authorization. The firms that attended Tuesday’s meeting include those that perform dredging work both nationally and worldwide.

The project will dig Charleston’s 45-foot-deep shipping channel to 52 feet from State Ports Authority terminals through the harbor and three miles out to sea, or about to the end of the jetties. It will allow the port to handle larger ships that will sail through the Panama Canal when an expansion of that waterway is completed this year.

The harbor deepening is expected to be done by 2020.

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