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A cargo ship leaving the charleston harbor

A cargo ship leaving the Charleston Harbor | Photo provided by SC Ports

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How the world connects in Charleston

Shipping + trade are the backbone of Charleston’s economy– and have been since 1670, when settlers arrived on the banks of the Ashley River. In fact, it was the natural harbor on the peninsula which led them to eventually relocate the Charles Towne settlement from the inland to what is now downtown.

Nearly 350 years later, little has changed in regard to the prominence of our harbor. The South Carolina Port Authority generates 10% of the state’s economic output, + is responsible for 1 in 11 jobs statewide.

SC Port fast facts:
🚢 2.2 million twenty-foot equivalent container units (or TEUs) handled annually
💰 $53 billion annual impact
🗒 Biggest exports: paper products + auto parts
🚗 Biggest imports: auto parts

2018 has already proven to be the busiest fiscal year in the history of the Portand it’s not slowing down anytime soon. A deepening project is moving full steam ahead, making the Charleston Harbor– which is already considered the most productive port in North Americathe deepest on the East Coast. In fact, it’s progressing at a faster rate than any other federal deepening project. Ever.

container ships in the charleston harbor

Two 13,000 TEU vessels passing one another in the Charleston Harbor. Once the dredging occurs, the Harbor will be able to handle TEU ships as large as 18,000. | Photo provided by SC Ports

So– just how deep are we talking?

At low tide, the Charleston Harbor is currently about 45 feet deep (47 feet at its entrance). When the dredging is complete, the Harbor will be 52 feet within the channel + 54 feet at its entrance. Again, this will make it the deepest harbor on the East Coast.

Construction began in February of this year + is expected to be completed by 2021.

And that’s only one piece of the pie when it comes to growth. The state of S.C. outlined a >$2 billion Capex (capital expenditure) + Infrastructure Plan, to further progress the Port. It includes:

Why does depth matter?

Industry experts forecast that by 2019, an even larger fleet of TEUs will be deployed from the recently-expanded Panama Canal to ports along the East Coast. In order to be able to effectively fill those ships + handle heavy exports (and to be able to do it 24/7, no matter the tide level)– the Harbor needs to be at least 50 feet deep.

Who relies on the harbor?

In short, we all do. But some big heavy hitters include Michelin, BMW, Volvo Car, Mercedes-Benz Vans, + Techtronic Industries.

How much does it cost + who is going to pay for it?

The deepening will cost about $509 million. Of that, $300 million has already been earmarked by the state, meaning the rest would need to come from the federal governmentbut that issue hasn’t been buttoned up yet.

Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed $49 million toward the project. That, along with a $50 million loan from the state, will be used to cover the phase of the project that will deepen the Harbor to the Wando Welch Terminal.

Add that to the $17 million contribution previously agreed to by the federal government, and the project still falls short of funding (by between $93- $143 million). However, there’s still hope: this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recalculate the project’s benefit-to-cost ratio utilizing updated numbers. Right now, they’re using numbers from 2012– which officials say don’t accurately represent the hike in cargo volumes. Supporters are hopeful the new numbers will influence President Trump to include more money for the project in next year’s budget.


Seeing the Charleston Harbor’s impact by the numbers really makes you appreciate those colorful cargo ships out on the Cooper River a little more, doesn’t it?

Which other major local projects + developments would you like to see us cover? Let us know in the comments below.