The federal government has given its formal approval for work to begin on deepening the Charleston Harbor.
The Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) announced Monday it had issued its “Chief’s Report,” which was the final step needed in the approval process before work could begin on dredging the harbor’s shipping channel down to 52 feet. The final report now moves to the Office of Management and Budget for review and then to Congress, which is expected to authorize the project early next year.
The deepening work is expected to finish in 2020, so long as the cost structure is followed. Corps of Engineers officials say the next step is pre-engineering, pre-construction, and design. That phase will begin once the core and South Carolina State Ports Authority sign a new agreement later this fall. The entire process will take 18-24 months, according to ACE Charleston District spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries.
Ports Authority President Jim Newsome said in his “State of the Ports” address on Monday that Charleston will have the deepest port on the East Coast when work finishes. “It’s a game-changer for our port,” he told reporters afterwards. “It’s essential for us.”
Ports officials say the deepening is needed in order to handle new, larger container ships that are expected to travel through the Panama Canal once an expansion project finishes in April 2016. These “Post-Panamax” vessels can only enter the harbor during high tide at its current depth.
Charleston handles the ninth-highest amount of cargo among American ports. Newsome said he believes expansion and the new deeper channel will bump them up in the rankings. “I do think there’s a group of ports ahead of us size-wise that I think we can jump,” he said. “With the fundamentals of our region, I think we can get close to them and even pass them by the end of this decade.”
The Port of Charleston had been the nation’s fourth-largest as recently as 2002, before it slipped behind Savannah, Oakland, Norfolk, Houston, and Tacoma.
Monday’s news means it’s now up to Congress to fund the estimated $500 million project. Members of the South Carolina delegation, particularly Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Jim Clyburn, pledged they would work to ensure the authorization is approved. The harbor deepening was among those projects included on the White House’s “We Can’t Wait” infrastructure initiative.
South Carolina legislators have already set aside more than $100 million to match the state’s entire portion of the joint cost-share project.