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SC ports agency wants to deepen shipping channel to North Charleston Terminal again, from 48 ft to 52 ft

Replacing the Don Holt Bridge spanning the Cooper River along Interstate 526 with a taller structure is among the State Ports Authority’s plans to expand its North Charleston container terminal. The authority also wants to dredge the river to 52 feet, from its current 47-foot depth, to accommodate bigger and heavier containerships visiting the terminal.

Posted on January 15, 2024

The State Ports Authority wants to deepen a stretch of the Cooper River leading to its North Charleston Terminal as part of a wide-ranging effort that’s picking up steam to boost capacity at the agency’s smallest container yard.

Authorization for a feasibility study that would weigh the costs and benefits of a potential dredging program could be included in this year’s federal Water Resources Development Act, which Congress expects to pass later this year.

SPA officials said it’s too early to say how much the project would cost or how long it would take.

The dredging proposal adds to plans for a taller Interstate 526 bridge over the Cooper River and the SPA’s reported efforts to buy property next to the terminal as the maritime agency looks to add wharf space for the coming decades.

“Port capacity is our currency, and infrastructure is a long-cycle game,” CEO Barbara Melvin said. “It is our responsibility to proactively invest in port infrastructure to support the thousands of companies and 260,000 South Carolina jobs that depend on our port system to thrive.”

U.S. Rep. Russell Fry, R-SC, asked the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct such a study during a meeting this week of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“The prosperity of South Carolina’s economy and our people are intricately linked to our state’s ports and waterways,” Fry said. “In a region projected to experience significant population growth, South Carolina is vitally important to the broader economy.”

It could take years from the time a study begins and dredging starts.

But if approved, the project would deepen the Cooper River between the Leatherman Terminal on the former Navy base and the North Charleston Terminal to 52 feet from 48 feet. That would match the rest of the waterway’s depth leading to the SPA’s other terminals.

A major $580 million dredging project that was completed in late 2022 took Charleston Harbor to 52 feet.

The latest proposed project is one of several measures the SPA is taking to expand its 201-acre North Charleston Terminal by 2040 so that it can handle 2.4 million containers a year from about 500,000 now. That would match the capacity at the port’s workhorse 689-acre Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

Gov. Henry McMaster last week asked state legislators to set aside $55 million in this year’s budget to help the SPA buy waterfront land next to the terminal where WestRock Co. operated a paper mill until last summer. The company has not yet formally put the roughly 331-acre property up for sale.

The S.C. Department of Transportation also plans to replace the Don Holt Bridge that crosses the river along I-526 with a taller structure that would let bigger containerships travel to the North Charleston Terminal. The current span, at 155 feet, limits the port site to what are now considered smaller cargo vessels that can carry up to 8,000 containers.

The SPA’s other terminals can accommodate ships carrying up to 14,000 containers at a time.

A taller bridge would be part of a larger program to improve the highway and is likely at least a decade away. Melvin said the SPA is planning now for terminal improvements because of the long lead time it takes to build major pieces of infrastructure.

Planning for the North Charleston Terminal will parallel an expansion at the port’s Leatherman Terminal a few miles south. The $1 billion first phase opened in March 2021 with capacity for 700,000 containers. Two more berths are planned by 2033 to bring capacity to 2.4 million containers.

The Leatherman has been hampered by a labor dispute over whether SPA workers or union members will operate its cranes. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide later this month whether it will take the case.

All told, the Port of Charleston aims to build the capacity to handle 7.2 million containers annually within the next 16 years.

The SPA isn’t the only maritime agency hoping for authorization of a feasibility study in this year’s water bill. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., is also seeking authorization for a study to examine the benefit of widening and deepening the harbor that serves the Port of Savannah.



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