SCPA: President's budget includes harbor deepening

File Photo (WCIV)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- With all of the federal budget cuts going on across the nation, one Lowcountry industry can breathe a sigh of relief.

According to the South Carolina Ports Authority, the harbor deepening project has once again been included in President Obama's budget.

This comes just after the Army Corps of Engineers warned that automatic federal spending cuts could delay the $300 million effort to deepen the Charleston Harbor shipping channel.

The fiscal year 2014 budget includes a $1.165-million allocation to continue the project's feasibility study, which is half-way done.

"We are grateful to the Administration for including Charleston's project in the budget for a second year in a row, as well as their commitment of resources to expeditiously advance our project," said Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) Board of Directors. "This funding means that Charleston's study can proceed to completion with absolutely zero funding restraints, as both the federal and the port's contributions have been fully committed at this point."

The feasibility study is cost-shared between the federal government and the SCPA. It should be completed by September 2015 at a cost of $13 million or less. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled to be released next year.

"Leaders at all levels of government have recognized the Port of Charleston's importance to the state's, the region's and the nation's economy, and we are thankful for the efforts of our Congressional Delegation, led by Senator Graham and Congressman Clyburn, the South Carolina Legislature and Mayor Riley." Stern said.

Last July, a committee comprised of leaders from both legislative houses in South Carolina announced a commitment of $300 million to help fund the deepening of Charleston Harbor.

The President's budget also included $14.825 million for maintenance dredging in Charleston Harbor.

The President's budget "focuses on the highest priority work within the agency's three main missions," which includes commercial navigation, and "emphasizes investments in construction projects with high economic and environmental returns," according to the document.

The Corps stated in its Reconnaissance Study in 2010 that Charleston is likely "the cheapest South Atlantic harbor to deepen to 50 feet." Last July, the Administration named the Charleston Harbor Post-45 Project as one of seven projects in five ports for We Can't Wait, a new initiative targeted to expedite the most critical infrastructure projects in the country.

With 45 feet of depth at mean low water, Charleston currently has the deepest channels in the region and can handle ships drafting up to 48 feet on high tide. SCPA officials say deepening by just five more feet will open the port to handling larger container ships 24 hours a day.

Nearly 20 percent of the port's ship calls so far in 2013 were vessels drafting greater than 39.5 feet, the current maximum depth at the Panama Canal.

Ocean carriers are beginning to shift services in the Asia-U.S. East Coast trade to utilizing the Suez Canal in order to deploy larger vessels and take advantage of economies of scale.

Already this year, 21 ships with actual docking or sailing drafts 43 feet or greater have called Charleston, which is the only port in the region today able to handle these vessels.

"The news today that the President's budget has provided funding again for the deepening of Charleston Harbor is indeed great news for the state and the lowcountry. {}It certainly emphasizes the level of national importance which is placed on the deepening of Charleston harbor for the East Coast. We appreciate the President's attention to this critical issue for our area and for our economy.{} This will allow us to handle the larger container ships and compete with other ports," said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.