A proposal that would deepen Charleston Harbor’s shipping channel down to 52 feet is now in the hands of Congress.
The Assistant Secretary of the Army for civil works Jo-Ellen Darcy on Wednesday gave formal recognition that the requirements for a $521 million dredging plan by the US Army Corps of Engineers are now satisfied. That decision notifies Congress the project is now eligible for funding. The Corps recently finished a four-year feasibility study.
“That was pretty much the last step in our feasibility study process,” the project’s former lead manager Brian Williams told South Carolina Radio Network. “And that enables Congress to then act on that report, if they so choose.”
Both the Corps and South Carolina ports officials are requesting the harbor deepening in order to handle new, larger container ships that are beginning to arrive on the East Coast. Such ships must now wait until high tide before delivering cargo.
Congress is expected to take up authorization later this year. US Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said he would “push Congress to provide us with the tools needed to finish the job.” US Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-SC, has also previously used his position close to the White House to ensure the feasibility study was properly funded.
South Carolina has already set aside more than $300 million to cover the State Ports Authority’s share of the costs. Williams said engineering and pre-design work continues in the interim before authorization. That includes simulation work to make sure the channel route chosen can handle larger ships that are already beginning to arrive in Charleston.
A final timeline for the entire dredging process is unclear, as it depends on how quickly and how much Congress sets aside in funding. Corps leaders are expecting the project to take 4-7 years, although spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries said that timeline covers deepening work all the way to the terminal under construction in North Charleston. She anticipated ships will be able to service the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant at an earlier date, since that terminal is closer to the mouth of the harbor.
Charleston Harbor’s deepening is the first nationwide to go through the Corps of Engineers’ new “Civil Works Planning” process, which tried to streamline the study for efficiency. The agency said it was able to conduct the study in about half the time and $8 million less than previous guidelines would have permitted.