South Carolina Ports Authority head talks about Savannah River dredging and proposed Jasper port

I’m not going to try to fill in all the background required for a full understanding of this post, so feel free to send a few questions my way about some of the points in this interesting interview in the Aiken Standard with South Carolina State Ports Authority head Jim Newsome: S.C. Ports Authority’s Newsome reflects on three years as CEO and the path ahead.

I don’t know if this counts as a “candid” interview, as Newsome clearly tries to walk some tricky political tightropes here.

Still, Savannah readers might want to read the entire lengthy interview, which touches upon cruise ships, dredging, new landside port capacity, the future of shipping, and on and on.

An excerpt about the opposition in South Carolina to dredging the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP):

Q: Harbor deepening is a top priority for Charleston, and other ports as well. We’ve seen state and federal support ramp up quickly, since we started talking about it (two years ago). We’ve also seen extensive efforts here in South Carolina to block Savannah’s deepening project. Does Charleston’s commercial success depend on keeping Savannah from getting a deeper shipping channel?

A: The focus on Savannah’s deepening, in my judgment, is environmental in nature. I don’t see it as an effort to protect Charleston. That’s not my take on it.

If, in a $650 million project (the cost of the Savannah River deepening project), $310 million is environmental mitigation, then there are environmental issues. One has to ask the question, have they been properly dealt with? That’s not an area for me to focus on. The Savannah River Maritime Commission was established to look at that.

There is no doubt that the deployment of large container ships is one of the megatrends of the future in container shipping. We’ll have a … (a ship that can carry the equivalent of 14,000 20-foot containers) in this harbor in the next two years. I’m sure of that.

Harbor capability will be a defining capability for regional ports in the near future. Inland costs define where cargo goes, but having a deep harbor is a critical differentiator for a port. That’s been a thesis central to our planning since I’ve been here.

The whole state really just coalesced behind (Charleston’s deepening) project. We really worked with purpose and persistence, and it came together.

And here’s Newsome on the long-proposed but apparently-increasingly-unlikely Jasper Port:

Q: In the background, there’s still the plan for Jasper (a massive bi-state container terminal planned on the Savannah River in Jasper County), which the SPA supports, but that’s all tied up in the Savannah River deepening, where do we put the dredging material, and all that business. Can South Carolina officials fairly take the position that Jasper only works with a 50-foot-deep Savannah River, but the river shouldn’t be deepened to 47 feet for the Port of Savannah? It’s the same river.

A: There is a case to be made that the current (Port of Savannah) deepening could preclude a further deepening up to the Jasper terminal. I’m not saying that authoritatively, but I’m saying that’s a concern.

I think, from just the port business, why would we argue for a 50-foot harbor in Charleston if we didn’t think that was a necessary standard for the East Coast?

We are not the only ones saying that. New York is authorized to 50 feet, Baltimore is authorized to 50 feet, Norfolk is authorized to 50 feet, Miami is authorized to 50 feet, the Panama Canal is at 50 feet or more. That’s not just a coincidental number.

The name of the game is to remove the tidal restrictions.

We’re talking about building the largest contiguous container terminal in North America (if Jasper is built). It seems logical to us to see what the outcome is of that (Port of Savannah) deepening, then discuss what it would take for the Jasper terminal.

Our next investment is the Navy base. From there, we move on to the next increment of capacity, be it in Jasper or somewhere else. Neither port (in South Carolina or Georgia) has got a dime in their budget for the Jasper terminal. I look forward to working on it one day.