Trying to ensure the Charleston harbor dredging is not derailed, the South Carolina State Ports Authority has agreed this week to provide its $9.5 million share of a feasibility study in advance.
The Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a five-year study into deepening the harbor for the larger cargo ships that will begin arriving along the East Coast in the coming years. However, the agency can only spend whatever Congress or the President gives them– and President Obama left the feasibility study off his budget this past year.
In the past, funding would not have been an issue, as a senator or congressman would have simply requested it through an earmark. But earmarks are no longer allowed in House and Senate rules, so now port officials have to hope the funding is either included in the budget or considered a high priority by the Corps (in the absence of a budget).
“If the Corps doesn’t get funding, then you could end up just stalling,” Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said.
The Ports Authority– which previously agreed to cover roughly half of the study’s estimated cost– is providing its full share up front, so the study can move forward even if no federal money comes down next year. “This buys us a little bit of time,” Miller said, “But it does not remove the immediacy of Congress acting to ensure that the funding is in place.”
The study alone is expected to take five to seven years. Then another two years is needed before dredging can even begin. The Corps says it will try to speed up the process as much as possible, but warned the study is meticulous and time-consuming. “We’ve set up to do some things a little differently and move a little aggressively on certain tasks,” said Lisa Matheney, Assistant Chief of Programs & Project Management for the agency’s Charleston District, “We’re pushing as hard as we can right now to hit that five-year mark.”
Miller said the project needs to be done as soon as possible– larger ships are already sailing into the harbor that require every inch of its current 45-foot depth. The SPA believes the harbor needs to be dredged to about 50 feet.
The next step in the process will be a series of public meetings in October and November, where the Corps will ask for public input. Then, the agency will spend the next 4-5 months gathering data from the harbor itself. The following years will be spent examining the different dredging plans and researching the costs and benefits of each.
A U.S. Senate committee, at the request of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and others, passed an amendment that would create a pool of federal funding for harbor studies. The amendment would allow the Corps to decide which harbor receives the funds. However, that plan still has to pass the full Senate and House.