CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- While studies for the $300 million deepening of the Charleston Harbor shipping channel are moving ahead quickly in Charleston, maritime officials were warned Monday that completion of the project depends largely on what happens in Washington.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Lt. Col. Ed Chamberlayne, the Charleston District engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, briefed members of the South Carolina State Ports Authority board on the status of the deepening project.
Maritime interests want the shipping channel deepened to 50 feet from its present 45 feet to handle the larger container ships that will routinely be calling when the bigger vessels begin using the expanded Panama Canal in two years.
Chamberlayne said the estimated $15 million in studies needed for the Charleston deepening project are moving forward and by the summer of next year a draft report on the deepening should be complete.
"That is a long time for some but it is lightning fast for the Corps of Engineers," he said. "We are on schedule as of today."
The study is to determine whether the project is economically beneficial and environmentally acceptable to the nation"
But he warned the automatic federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, could mean corps workers working four-day weeks beginning next month and slowing the needed studies.
He said the exact details of how the cuts will be implemented are still unclear. But he added that of all the various projects the district is working on "the harbor deepening study is No. 1 for me."
Last year, the Obama administration designated Charleston and four other harbor projects as nationally significant and allowed required studies to be expedited.
But Graham said the $120 million federal share of the deepening work must still be approved by Congress.
"We're good to go for about another year," the Republican lawmaker said. "But if at the end of next year we don't have some sort of comprehensive strategy that deals with ports — inland and coastal ports and modernizing our facilities — the world economy is going to leave us behind."
Graham said that in a new era where there are no earmarks in which lawmakers pick special projects in their home districts for money, money for the deepening should be done on a merit-based system.
"There will be no legislation that deals solely with Charleston," he said, adding he hopes by year's end to introduce a bill that would provide upward to $100 billion for the nation's infrastructure needs.
About $20 billion of that would be for harbors and inland waterways, allowing deepening of East and Gulf Coast ports and building new shore side infrastructure on the West Coast where the harbors are deeper, he said. Graham said he envisions getting the various projects completed in as little as five years.
"The only way this ends well is for the federal government to finally get its act together and come up with a modernization plan. Hopefully this happens sometime by the end of the year," he said.