Deepening the Charleston harbor has loomed over South Carolina in recent years, much like how the massive Maersk “Triple E” cargo ships the wharfage is trying to accommodate towers over most any other man-made vessel.

The Obama administration designated Charleston as one of five nationally significant harbor projects last year and allowed required studies to be expedited, which the Army Corps of Engineers wrapped up last week. With the project on the fast track, hopes are it could be completed by the end of the decade.

There are nearly 20 eastern United States harbors currently looking at dredging in order to accommodate the larger container ships that will call when the widened Panama Canal opens in 2015 and changes the shipping world forever.

Making a mega port, of course, comes with a mega price tag. Charleston’s study found that dredging the 5 feet of loose sediment off the ocean floor in order to reach the requisite 50-foot depth will not be as environmentally unfriendly – or costly – as once feared, but the $300-$350 million investment might still come mainly – solely? – from S.C. coffers as talk of a 40 percent federal match is hopeful but far from a guarantee.

Not all the ports will be able to afford it but ships are only going to get larger, and waiting for the tide or transferring cargoes to smaller vessels are not options in today’s shipping business.

Get deeper or drown seems to be the message.

The ports prepared to handle the “post-Panamax” ships, as they are dubbed, will be changed, too, transforming from the bustling places most already are into mega-terminals ready to add on whole new cities full of workers in just a few years. Earlier this summer, the State Ports Authority agreed to spend about $25 million on two new container cranes to handle cargo from larger container ships. Once installed in 2015, 12 of the 20 container cranes at the state’s ports will be able to service the larger ships.

With larger ships come larger responsibilities, as the time to unload bigger ships creates the potential for congestion and delays. Having the proper personnel and infrastructure in place will be key in winning this economic sweepstakes.

And make no mistake, these are big-time stakes. When the larger ships come calling, only New York City, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., will have the requisite depth with Miami soon to follow. For other East Coast harbors thirsty for the windfall, being one of the first established mega-ports matters. The Port of Charleston generates $600 million in import duties every year. If Charleston completes its project before nearby Savannah, Ga., already waist deep in its harbor plan, it stands to reap billions in economic development dollars and tax receipts.

The Obama administration is not tipping its hand which Southeastern port it prefers as Vice President Joe Biden will visit both Charleston and Savannah, the nation’s fourth busiest container port, this week on a harbor tour.

Charleston has several built-in advantages over Savannah. It is more a natural harbor. Dredging the lengthy Savannah River channel will come at nearly twice the cost, and while S.C. legislators have already earmarked the $300 million to pay for Charleston’s freight, Georgia is not in the same fiscal boat.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has been instrumental in leading the delegation that has helped expedite this process. Because of Charleston’s late start, the project was at first estimated to be completed by 2024. Nine years behind for a state positioning itself as business-friendly is, well, bad business.

More work is needed to make the 2019 forecast. But even though several other ports had a headstart when Charleston fired its starter gun, it has been running non-stop ever since.

If everything stays on track, Charleston is about ready to catch up.