- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina ports officials expect a seamless transition from the federal studies of deepening the Charleston Harbor shipping channel to dredging work on the $300 million project, which could begin next year.

President Barack Obama’s budget released this week includes almost $700,000 for the ongoing studies of the harbor deepening.

A final report is expected in September 2015 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on how deep to dredge the channel. Maritime interests want it at least 50 feet to handle new generation of larger container ships.

“The administration has included funding for the SCPA’s deepening project in its budget for three consecutive years,” Bill Stern, the board chairman of the South Carolina Ports Authority, said in a statement. “We’re deeply appreciative that the administration recognizes our harbor deepening as a critical infrastructure project.”

That’s in stark contrast to the reaction in Georgia. No construction money was in the president’s budget for a $650 million deepening of the Savannah River channel, a project that has already been approved by the Corps. The state’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the president protesting the lack of funds, despite Obama and Vice President Joe Biden publicly supporting the project and promising money.

Georgia, a keen port competitor with South Carolina, has set aside $231 million for that state’s share of the project. But the White House has said the deepening work can’t begin until the House and Senate work out differences on a new $8.2 billion water resources bill.

That measure would, for the first time, allow ports to get work underway on deepening projects with their own money and then be reimbursed for part of the expense later from the federal government later. In the past, once there was a positive report from the Corps, the project still had to be authorized by Congress and money approved, causing delays between studies and construction.

The South Carolina General Assembly has already set aside $300 million which might be enough to pay the entire cost of the Charleston deepening.

Erin Pabst, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Ports Authority, said Friday the agency is confident the water resources bill will be passed in plenty of time so that once the final studies on the project are done, the dredging work can begin late next year.

“We’re trying to move forward seamlessly,” she said. “We’re pretty confident they will have a successful conference on the bill and that it will pass.”

During a visit last September to Charleston, Biden said deepening the Charleston channel is important because the nation will fall behind other nations if it doesn’t update its infrastructure.

“We’d better deepen it to 50 feet,” he told a crowd on the Charleston waterfront. “Otherwise, guess what? We’re going to be left behind, because other ports are going ahead and doing it.”

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