Congressional approval secured, SPA proceeds with Charleston Port Deepening Project
By Charlie Morrison
An impressive collection of elected officials, industry leaders and executives from the South Carolina Ports Authority (SPA) assembled last Monday at for a roundtable discussion on the progress of the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project. The meeting, held at the Cooper River Room at Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park, was one-part congratulatory and one part motivational as members of the assemblage both celebrated their mutual effort thus far to make the Port of Charleston the deepest on the east coast, but too pushed each other to see the project through to completion.
Ostensibly the group gathered last week to celebrate the December passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act (WIIN), which provides the project Congressional authorization and paves the way for the $202 million in Federal dollars needed for the project’s completion to be included in the 2018 Federal budget. Should that take place, dredging cranes will begin digging in December of this year and the project will most certainly be completed by the projected deadline of 2020.
It was SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome who opened the meeting, welcoming the dozens of leaders from the private and public sector to the discussion before setting the tone of the meeting with his remarks.
“I believe it’s safe to say this is the fastest that a deep draft navigation project has ever move through to authorization,” he began. “We can all be proud of that but we don’t need to let the foot off the gas because the big ships are coming soon and we need to keep going.”
Newsome credited the first invited speaker to address the floor, Sen. Lindsey Graham, as one reason they were celebrating, as it had been the efforts of the S.C. delegation working behind the scenes in Washington who’d helped make the difference in securing the Congressional approval and federal funding that truly sets the wheels driving the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project in motion.
“This has been the hardest thing I think I’ve ever dealt with, and the most consequential thing and it would not have happened thus far without our delegation,” said Graham in opening his remarks. “Washington is broken in many ways but the South Carolina delegation is not broken in terms of taking care of our backyard.”
“I don’t know how we did this but in a divided world between Republicans, who are divided into about 12 different camps and the Democratic party, which is not hitting on all cylinders either, we’ve been able to make the Port of Charleston sacrosanct,” continued Graham. “But the celebration only begins when the first ship comes.”
“This is an awesome opportunity for us to focus our attention on the things that we do well and what we do well in South Carolina is we look after our own,” commented fellow U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who like Graham represents the state’s interests in Washington. “It’s South Carolina family strong.”
And while one of the last pieces in the port puzzle was placed by the state’s federal representatives, it was members of S.C. State Legislature who truly got the ball rolling on the project to deepen Charleston’s port to 52 feet when they pushed for the state’s April 2012 decision to set aside over $300 million for the project. One of the principal legislators to work on behalf of the port on the state side was Daniel Island resident and State Senator Larry Grooms.
“When we experienced great decline at our port we had to answer a few questions, the main one being ‘why?’ Some of us went to work, did our homework and realized we had to make a few changes and we did, we passed legislation, we made a few changes and as a result we have new leadership at our port, a new direction,” said Grooms. “As a result, we decided to build a new terminal, as a result, we decided we needed to deepen our harbor. Those were the results of these questions as to why things are not going right, as to how could we increase the quality of life and standard of living, and we were able to put some things in place.”
“We’re now moving into it, and the people of South Carolina, the people in St. Stephen, the people in Cross, the people in Orangeburg County, their families will be benefiting by what’s happening here because there will be jobs created, there will be higher paying jobs,” Grooms continued. “There will be a greater quality of life and a higher standard of living for many South Carolina families because of some of the work that was done by a lot of the people in this room today.”
First Congressional District Representative Mark Sanford also took a congratulatory tone in remarks he delivered before the group. Sanford made news recently on the topic of the port when he proposed that the more than 1,300 acres the SPA holds easements for on Daniel Island be repurposed into a massive public park. And while his opinion did make waves, for his part Sanford focused his attention on the present.
“Today is indeed a day of celebration of a collaborative effort. I think it’s also a celebration of how far we’ve come. It’s a reminder of how central the Port of Charleston is to the Charleston community and throughout the state but it’s also a reminder of vigilance,” said Sanford. “And not just that we were in the past vigilant but how important it is that we be vigilant in the future. And that’s with regard to the two billion dollars and some scary winds that are blowing around Washington, D.C. these days in regard to protectionism.”
Even Major General Donald Jackson, Deputy Commanding General for Civil Works of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had praise for the legislators’ efforts, and he said as much before turning to a topic that’s near if not dear to the hearts of Daniel Islanders, that of dredging.
“We appreciate with the state has done and what the board has done on the funding side,” said Jackson. “The federal appropriations process can be unreliable and inconsistent sometimes because there are so many competing demands for federal dollars but the delegation here in the state has just stepped up and done some wonderful things to keep the momentum.”
“There are a lot of things we don’t know what we’re working very closely with the dredge industry because this project is heavily dependent on dredge availability and the continued working relationship we have with the dredge industry,” continued Jackson. “This project is not a surprise to them, they’re waiting for those contracts to hit the street.”
Jackson confirmed that the plan right now is to, should the funding be secured in the next federal budget, begin the dredging in December of 2017. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently finalizing the design for the dredging project, which once completed, will go out to bid via federal channels. A project partnership agreement remains to be finalized, along with the President’s rubber stamp, but Monday’s meeting established one thing above all others: that the project to deepen the Port of Charleston is full steam ahead.