AJC on the latest interstate port rivalry between Savannah and Charleston

The AJC has interesting piece today updating some of the political tensions and concrete moves in the ongoing saga of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) and late-to-the-game attempts to get a similar dredging of the Charleston harbor fast-tracked.

Read that piece here: Washington at work on ports

Let me begin by noting that Georgia politicians, South Carolina politicians, members of both states’ media, and any number of other people continue to use phrases like this one that opens the AJC piece: “South Carolina legislators went into overdrive last week attempting, in essence, to scuttle the deepening of the port of Savannah — a critical economic engine for Atlanta — in hopes of boosting the port of Charleston.”

Yes, the port of Savannah is critical to the entire state of Georgia. But statements like this one give the impression that the Savannah port won’t continue to grow without dredging.

The Corps of Engineers’ economic analysis is quite clear on this point. As I have said before:

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).

Where will this $100 million in efficiency savings go? Some of it might go into the pockets of American businesses and maybe even turn into higher wages for workers. Some will just be additional profits for multinational shipping firms that will likely make additional investments in their businesses worldwide.

But those efficiency savings, according to the COE, won’t result in more cargo flowing from the port through the rest of the state.

I last wrote about this issue a month ago: Major error in the AJC’s coverage of Savannah River dredging

The hyperbole aside, we really are seeing an interesting back and forth between Georgia and South Carolina, both of which are looking to Washington for a major portion of their funding.

At the same time, credible analysts are suggesting that not all of the East Coast ports need to be dredged to handle the larger ships that can be accommodated by a widened Panama Canal.

A snippet from today’s AJC piece:

“If you look at [deepening] strictly based on the merits, and which port gets the biggest bang for the buck, it’s no question that Charleston makes more sense,” Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, said last week. “Savannah has been in the permitting process for 12 years and has its own set of problems to deal with. Our port makes a lot more sense because it’s closer to the open sea.”

South Carolina, though, remains embroiled in a nasty, internal ports squabble pitting GOP Gov. Nikki Haley against the Republican-dominated legislature. In short, Haley is accused of siding with Savannah over Charleston in the big-money race to deepen their respective ports. Charges of political skullduggery, backroom deals and influence-peddling abound.

Yet some politicians and ports officials on both sides of the river say Charleston and Savannah can mutually benefit from the so-called post-Panamax ships capable of carrying more than 10,000 steel containers. Georgia businesses shipped $17.9 billion the last fiscal year through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick, according to PIERS industry research. Metro Atlanta tallied the lion’s share — $9.5 billion — of the imports and exports.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and South Carolina’s Haley; U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have lobbied Washington for money to improve the ports.

Will those major politicians be able to bring all parties on board amicably?

Will the federal government step up with the money for the largest economic stimulus projects that either state has pursued?

If the Savannah River is dredged, will the Corps be correct that they can mitigate for all the known and possible consequences? There are many environmental consequences, a few of which I detailed in this City Talk column. From that column:

All of the potential effects are minor or could be sufficiently mitigated, according to the study. But it’s worth noting that while the predicted effects are small, there are many of them. Uncertainty is expressed at many points.

For example, the potential for erosion was studied along the channel, but not in the River Street area “since the shoreline is already protected by structures.” Given issues of structural integrity in recent years, I’m not reassured by this omission.

In some hurricane scenarios, the corps anticipates slightly higher storm surges, topping out an additional nine-tenths of a foot at the I-95 bridge.

How many more areas would be affected by the additional surge? According to the impact statement, Chatham County officials “indicated that since the impact amount is less than the 1-foot contour interval available for the high ground areas, they would not be able to identify any locations that would be adversely impacted by the small increase in surge height.”

And this regarding the likely increase in salinity because of the deepening: “In light of the uncertainties that exist in the predictive tool, [the corps’ technical decision-makers] went on to recommend that chloride levels be monitored at the city’s intake should a harbor deepening occur to ensure that the predicted level of impact is not exceeded.”

In addition to unknowns like these, there are small but notable impacts in a wide range of areas – effects on animal species, wetlands, oxygen levels in the water and on and on.