An initial proposal to deepen the Charleston Harbor would cost roughly a half-billion dollars, much more than originally predicted.
The Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District on Tuesday released a draft of its three-year feasibility study into dredging the harbor. South Carolina State Ports Authority officials have said a deeper channel is necessary to handle new, larger container vessels that are already arriving on the East Coast.
The Corps is recommending a 52-foot depth for the channel, an increase from its current 47 feet. The work would cost a total of $509 million, according to the study.
“The alternative that was the most expensive, but still produced the greatest amount of net benefits was the 52-foot alternative,” the chief of the Charleston District’s planning and environmental branch Bret Walters told South Carolina Radio Network. “And that’s what’s being proposed.”
Earlier rough estimates had the project costing around $300-350 million. That was the number cited when state lawmakers set aside reserve funds to cover the entire cost in 2011. But project manager Brian Williams said the study found heavier rock material in the channel that would be more difficult to dredge than sand or silt.
A big part of the determining process was the “economic impact” of each plan, Walters said. He added that the Corps factored in the project’s cost with its expected economic benefit. For example, a 52-foot channel would allow ships to sail up the Cooper River without having to wait for high tide, he said.
Maritime officials said they supported the plan. “The Port of Charleston’s ability to handle post-Panamax vessels 24 hours a day without tidal restriction is critical to the future competitiveness of our state port system,” Ports Authority chief executive officer Jim Newsome said in a statement.
The public will be able to comment on the proposal during an October 21 hearing at The Citadel’s Alumni Center in Charleston. That meeting will begin at 5:30. Supporters and critics of the plan can also submit comments to the Corps of Engineers from October 10 to November 24.
Once the public comments are considered, the Corps of Engineers will work on its final report and recommendations. The final report is expected in Fall 2015. At that point, it will be up to Congress and the national Corps of Engineers’ office to approve the project itself. The project is supposed to be a cost-sharing agreement between the Ports Authority and the federal government. State legislators have already set aside $300 million to cover their share of the project, but would likely need to approve more before work could begin.
The entire project is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2020.
The study was conducted more quickly than normal for the Ports Authority’s benefit. Williams said the feasibility study will end up taking less than four years and cost an estimated $13 million to complete. He said a traditional dredging study would take 5-8 years.