Bidding protest delays key stretch of Charleston Harbor deepening

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The backhoe dredge New York works on the outer harbor portion of the Charleston Harbor deepening project. A dredging firm from Virginia is protesting the bidding process for another portion of the project. Provided/SCSPA

Posted April 22, 2019

The federal agency that keeps tabs on how taxpayer dollars are spent has sided with the Army Corps of Engineers in a bidding dispute for for a contract to deepen part of Charleston Harbor, but the work could still face delays.

The Government Accountability Office said in a March 26 decision that the Army Corps properly canceled bids for the contract because all of them were higher than the government’s estimated cost.

Norfolk Dredging Co. had protested the Army Corps’ decision, saying it should have gotten the contract because it submitted the lowest bid.

The protest has delayed work by at least several months and possibly longer if Norfolk Dredging decides to appeal the GAO’s ruling to the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.

Dudley Ware, president of Norfolk Dredging, did not return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday.

Dredging work on that stretch of the project — including the lower harbor and along the Wando River — was supposed to start in early February. Army Corps spokesman Sean McBride said the agency now hopes to award a contract this summer.

The work is part of a $558 million project to deepen Charleston Harbor to 52 feet, giving the Port of Charleston the East Coast’s deepest shipping lanes.

Barbara Melvin, chief operating officer for the State Ports Authority, said the contract delay probably won’t affect the overall timeline, with completion scheduled for late 2021.

“The dredging is ahead of schedule, so there’s time built in for this kind of thing,” Melvin said. “We are not worried about our time frame.”

A key part of the contract that’s on hold is widening the turning basin at Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. That will make it easier for big container ships carrying 14,000 or more cargo boxes to maneuver at the terminal.

Dredging of Charleston Harbor’s entrance channel and inner harbor is under way. The deepening eventually will extend to the authority’s North Charleston Terminal, beyond a new container terminal being built on the city’s former navy base.

Norfolk Dredging’s protest stemmed from an early November bidding process in which five companies competed for the dredging work. The bids — which ranged from $138.9 million to $322.9 million — were higher than the government’s estimated cost of $84.4 million.

Even after the Army Corps revised its estimate twice and asked the companies to lower their costs, the bids came in higher than expected. The GAO said it agreed with the Army Corps that the bids were “unreasonable” and that the agency could pick a contractor on its own to negotiate a deal.

South Carolina legislators set aside $300 million years ago to cover the state’s share of the Charleston Harbor deepening project’s costs, with the federal government responsible for the rest. President Donald Trump included $138 million for the project in his budget for the coming fiscal year, and the Army Corps has previously contributed nearly $108 million.

The harbor deepening is among $2 billion worth of improvements under way at the Port of Charleston, including a new container terminal, refurbishment at Wando Welch and taller cranes and other equipment.

The Port of Charleston has seen record growth in recent years, with the region’s population boom driving imports and South Carolina manufacturers like BMW and Michelin exporting their products overseas. More than 2.3 million cargo boxes measured in 20-foot increments moved through the port’s terminals in 2018 — 6.4 percent better than the previous year and an all-time high.