A curious editorial about Savannah, Jasper, and Charleston by the chair of the S.C. State Ports Authority

I wonder if newcomers to the ongoing battle over the proposed Savannah Harbor Expansion Project — the dredging of the Savannah River to 48 feet to accommodate larger ships that will be coming through the Panama Canal after its expansion is complete — can even follow the various ins and outs of the political battles now being waged.

Last week, S.C. Senator Lindsey Graham was primarily responsible for authorizing close to half a billion in federal funding for port deepening on the East Coast. But the bill didn’t fund specific ports — it simply told the Corps of Engineers to use the funds appropriately after establishing a national strategy for shipping infrastructure. Many Georgians seemed to see that as good news for the ports, but I didn’t. If the COE is looking at a national strategy and at the taxpayers’ bang-for-the-buck, consider: a) we don’t need to dredge every port on the East Coast and b) the length of Savannah’s 30-plus mile channel hardly will be in its favor in any comparison. South Carolinians might also end up losing out on federal help under Graham’s bill: since Panama Canal officials have said that only a few East Coast ports need to be able to handle the larger post-Panamax ships, there are plenty of other options outside the lightly populated Lowcountry. Those options include Miami, Baltimore, Norfolk, and New York (several of which are in states with more political clout or in swing states in national elections).

Throw into the mix the on-again-off-again plans for a new Jasper County port in South Carolina on the north side of the Savannah River (closer to the open ocean than the current Georgia ports), and we’ve got a fluid, unpredictable situation.

Now there’s this guest editorial in the Charleston Post and Courier by Bill H. Stern, chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority: A forward course for Jasper port. He outlines tough new conditions for Georgia to meet if South Carolina is going to support the Savannah River dredging:

–Release the 50-year federal easements on the entire 1,500-acre Jasper port site by a defined, mutually agreed upon date and adopt a new dredged material management plan;

–Share equally the significant costs of roads and other infrastructure to the site;

–Measure the navigational capacity of the constrained Savannah River to evaluate how much new ship traffic can be accommodated;

–Determine if there is significant private sector interest in going forward with the Jasper port earlier than demand warrants based on the port capacity in Savannah and Charleston; and

–Ensure equal, dual-rail access from both major railroads.

Until those conditions are met, the S.C. State Ports Authority says it won’t spend any additional funds on the Jasper site.

But Stern makes some implications in the editorial that are seemingly at odds with the Corps of Engineers’ economic analysis (which I have written about a number of times). That COE analysis is quite clear on several points. Major shipping companies are not going to quickly mothball their existing fleets and invest in a plethora of new, larger ships. Even if the Savannah River is not dredged, so says the COE, the Georgia ports will continue to see more and more vessels and cargo through 2032, when landside capacity will be maxed out.

That analysis hardly gibes with statements that Stern makes in today’s column, like saying that a Jasper Terminal with 48 feet of water instead of 50 feet “would be obsolete before it could be built.” He writes:

In 1999, when the proposed Savannah River deepening project began, a depth of 48 feet may have been adequate. Today’s global shipping market requires more.

Under present conditions, it’s a bad deal for taxpayers to spend billions of dollars on public infrastructure for a Jasper terminal served by a river that lacks the depth needed for modern global commerce.

Essentially, Stern is trying to get SHEP completely rethought as a 50-foot channel that goes at least as far as the unbuilt Jasper port. He mentions the need for further environmental study, but doesn’t really discuss the likelihood that further study could literally add years more to the timeline. At that point, the one clear advantage that the Georgia ports had in terms of funding — the fact that Georgia has the process so much further along than some other states’ ports — will likely be gone. And if that advantage is lost, the rationale for deepening the Savannah and/or Jasper ports will likely be trumped by other cities’ ports where dredging can be done at less cost and in closer proximity to major centers of commerce.