Deeper harbor, better future

A workboat moves along the dredge spoil pipes in Charleston Harbor in January, 2014. Wade Spees/Staff

Bigger isn’t always better. But when it comes to cargo ships, bigger is the future.

And it’s now clear that the port of Charleston will be ready for the next generation of super-sized ships.

Given that the state’s port operations generate about $53 billion a year and affect one in 11 jobs statewide, that’s a welcome development.

The Army Corps of Engineers has signed off on permits to deepen the Charleston Harbor from 45 feet to at least 52 feet. That will mean that the largest container ships will be able to call on Charleston, even at low tide.

And that will mean that the port will be in a position to handle more business, benefiting the entire state.

If it stays on schedule, the port’s new terminal at the old Navy base in North Charleston will be operating by then. It will be accessible by rail so that some cargo can be loaded on trains without ever having to travel on public roads. That is particularly important since I-26 and portions of I-526 are already inadequate for the traffic that they bear.

But most of the cargo will continue to travel by truck, so S.C. lawmakers still must find a solution to the state’s inadequate highways. The state also will have to pay for a new port access road to I-26.

The cost of the dredging project is expected to be $521 million. It is to be divided between the port and the federal government. State lawmakers planned ahead and wisely set aside $341 million to cover the port’s share. A top-ranking Corps official said he anticipates no problem securing federal funds.

The deepening project is expected to be completed in 2020, but could have taken five years longer had the approval process not been expedited by the White House at the urging of the State Ports Authority and government leaders.

Indeed, the project has enjoyed wide support from key people from the beginning — as it should have.

In addition to the S.C. Legislature putting aside money for it, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., has worked to secure federal support.

And Gov. Nikki Haley said she stressed to President Barack Obama in 2012 how important it was for the approval process to be expedited.

Jim Newsome, SPA chief executive officer, has big plans for the port, which is ranked No. 9 in the country. He wants it to be in the top five.

“There is still plenty to be done,” he said.

South Carolina is on the world’s map for business and industry development. Volvo recently announced it would make cars here, joining Boeing and Upstate industries like BMW and Michelin. The port is a primary reason the state is attractive to businesses.

Preparing the port to serve ships of the future is key to the state’s ongoing economic health.

The remaining challenge for the SPA, the Legislature, the S.C. Department of Transportation and local governments will be to handle the additional road activity that will come with this increased prosperity so that it doesn’t risk public safety or diminish the quality of residential life.