In race to dredging, Charleston leaves the starting gate

The Charleston Post and Courier is reporting this morning that efforts are finally underway to look at dredging the Port of Charleston to accommodate the post-Panamax ships so that they won’t be reliant on the tides: “Port, Army Corps to begin harbor dredging study”.

According to the article:

This morning, the SPA [State Ports Authority] and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will sign an agreement that starts the ball rolling on the deepening of the Charleston shipping channel, a project expected to take a decade or longer, with construction costs estimated at $310 million if the depth is changed to 50 feet.

The SPA wants the channel deepened to 50 feet, so that post-Panamax ships can come and go without relying on the tides.

The difference from the current depth, 5 feet, may not sound like much, but getting there could take, according to the Army Corps, between 10 and 13 years.

The agreement set for signing this morning will begin a feasibility study phase that should last five to eight years, the Army Corps estimates, so long as the federal government continues to provide necessary funding.

Ports up and down the eastern seaboard, and in the Gulf of Mexico, are all scrambling to deepen their shipping lanes, and in some cases build higher bridges, in order to handle the larger ships.

I’m not going to try to recap the whole issue here, but there are a few points worth noting:

  • Charleston is years and years behind Savannah in doing this study, but that doesn’t mean that Savannah necessarily deserves the funding more or that Savannah ports are a better fit for larger ships than Charleston’s.
  • There are obvious ironies and inefficiencies in the fact that the Corps of Engineers is examining such projects on a case-by-case basis rather than considering a national strategy.
  • Deepening the port in Charleston will likely cost about 1/2 of the Savannah dredging project.
  • Panama Canal officials have said that only a few U.S. East Coast ports need to be deepened to accommodate larger ships that will be able to use the canal after its expansion is finished in 2014.
  • The Corps projects that the number of containers handled by the Port of Savannah will grow at the same pace with or without deepening (see here).
  • The largest vessels — ones that can’t come to ports in Georgia at all right now — will make up only 6.3% of the world fleet in 2025, according to the Corps of Engineers.