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Congress authorizes Charleston Harbor deepening project

Distribution & Logistics
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Congress has authorized the Charleston Harbor deepening project with the passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act. The bill is awaiting President Obama's signature. (Photo/Provided by S.C. Ports Authority).

Congress has authorized the Charleston Harbor deepening project and sent it to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature — the last step in authorizing the 52-foot harbor depth.

The Senate passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, S.612, on Saturday by a vote of 78-21. The House passed the act, which includes the Water Resources Development Act, by a vote of 360-61.  

The bill’s passage gives the Charleston Harbor deepening project full congressional authorization. It also authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers Chief’s Report for the construction phase, “ensuring the project can remain on schedule,” according to a news release from the S.C. State Ports Authority.

The project will deepen Charleston Harbor to 54 feet at the entrance channel and 52 feet in the harbor.

The 52-foot depth means post-Panamax ships — larger ships that can traverse the newly expanded Panama Canal — will be able to call on the Port of Charleston any time of day without tidal restrictions. The harbor is already wide enough to handle two ships simultaneously.

“The passage of WIIN marks one of the most significant milestones in the history of the Port of Charleston,” ports authority CEO Jim Newsome said in the news release. “With this important step by Congress, we now turn our attention to inclusion in the president’s FY2018 budget, relative to the construction phase of the harbor deepening project.”

The post-Panamax ships have been calling on the Port of Charleston and more are expected. The infrastructure project will yield the deepest harbor on the East Coast, Newsome has said.

“This depth advantage will add significant capability in the fastest growing port region in the U.S. — the Southeast,” Newsome said in the release. “This is vitally important for significant long-term volume growth and the deployment of large containerships.”

The background

The ports authority began taking steps toward deepening Charleston Harbor in 2010. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, conducted a four-year, $11 million study of the project — roughly half the typical time and cost of a feasibility study. This more efficient process is part of the corps’ Smart Planning process.

The Army Corps’ study culminated in a Chief’s Report in September 2015, greenlighting the deepening of the harbor to 50 feet, or to 52 feet with additional funding from the port. The port opted to pay the extra $70 million to deepen the harbor to 52 feet.

The project received its Record of Decision from the assistant secretary of the Army in January. It has awaited authorization from Congress and the president since then.

The deepening project also needs about $175 million in federal money. The state already set aside $300 million of the $509 million total.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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