Port cargo growth would stay the same with or without deepening, according to the Corps of Engineers

My column in the Savannah Morning News today, “Harbor deepening and its benefits”, is one of the most important I’ve written in some time. I am not going to quote or even recap all of it here, so I’d encourage those who have followed the dredging issue to take a look at it.

The gist of the piece is pretty straightforward: The cargo handled by the port would increase at the same rate with or without deepening; without the dredging, that cargo would require more vessel calls and a smaller average ship size; the savings from increased efficiency would be over $100 million a year, which would enter the national economy in ways that inevitably would create net economic gains (though it’s impossible to say precisely what those gains would be).

Here I just want to elaborate a little more about a handful of issues.

Why hasn’t it been better understood that the port’s growth in cargo is projected to be the same with or without dredging? I guess this is so counterintuitive that a lot of people simply have not understood it (I did not until I delved deeply into the data). Having been told that we HAD to deepen the river to remain competitive, many just made the logical assumption that port traffic would decline. That is not the case at all, as the data shows.

I note in the column that I’m “troubled” by the number of dredging proponents who have made factually inaccurate statements. Just last week in an op-ed, an officer with the Savannah Maritime Association claimed: “Everyone agrees that expansion will increase the traffic volume in the port.” No, everyone does not agree — because it’s not true. If anything, since the dredging would allow the use of bigger vessels that would make fewer trips, the expansion would mean a slower rate of growth of “traffic” (even as the number of containers stays the same).

Why have so many people made factually inaccurate statements like that? In part, it’s simple ignorance of the Corps of Engineers’ data. In part, it’s surely the counter-intuitive nature of all this that I note above. But incorrect statements seem to have a bit more sinister edge to some of us. There have to be many proponents of dredging who have heard such statements and have failed to correct them or to clarify the economic projections. There’s something deeply cynical about allowing your allies to make arguments on your behalf that you know to be wrong. Did proponents think that no one would ever look at the COE’s published data and projections? And did they really think it was in their best interest to allow port workers and their allies to worry about actual job losses?

If there were one area that my column today needs expansion, it’s on the subject of local jobs, specifically ones related to the port. Many of the biggest supporters of dredging have been the frontline employees and others who view those port-related jobs as crucial blue collar employment in a city struggling with issues of poverty and education. To all those people, I’d address a simple question: Since the projections for container growth would be the same either way, would there be more local jobs created with about 3500 vessel calls a year (the projection for 2032 with dredging) or about 4100 vessel calls a year (the projection for 2032 without dredging)?

UPDATE, 12:20 P.M.: One other thing I remembered that I wanted to say: it’s interesting that so many of the same people who railed against government stimulus efforts (both the principle of it and the specific expenditures) have unquestioningly embraced dredging, which is about as obvious a federal stimulus measure as one can imagine.

1 comment for “Port cargo growth would stay the same with or without deepening, according to the Corps of Engineers

  1. Andrea
    February 28, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Thank you for writing about this. It has been unbelievably difficult to get this point across. The public message generated by GPA and promulgated by elected officials is the polar opposite of what is stated in the Corps studies.

    The strategy appears to be to “say” we are doomed without it in order to rally support from the voters and thus elected officials who are needed to allocate state tax dollars and beg for federal ones — and then to represent an entirely different economic reality in the study that is used to go begging for those federal dollars.

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