Southern Ports

Right now there is a big tempest taking place in South Carolina related to whether or not our governor, Nicki Haley, allowed herself to be improperly influenced in favor of Georgia’s efforts to dredge thirty-eight miles of river bottom in Savannah to take the controlling depth of the Savannah River to forty-eight feet. This means miles of river bottom will be scraped away, as much as ten to fifteen feet of river bottom for miles. It will also require the dredging of a turning basin some half-mile into the migratory wildlife refuge at the upper end so the vessels can turn around and go back down the river when they are done with service at the dock.

There are all kinds of logistic and environmental issues with this effort. So much so that it remains even money, at best, that it will even be accomplished. For a long time, there has been a logical and reasonable and operationally superior alternative available to Savannah on the other side of the river in Jasper County, SC. While I believe it is foolish for Georgia to be pursuing this dredging option it is clear to me that both state governments oppose a port in Jasper and it is not going to happen in my lifetime.

What is basically undisputed is that Savannah has the potential to become one of the largest, busiest ports in the world. As a long time supporter of the Jasper Port I can tell you State Sen. James Waddell and a former head of the Lowcountry Regional Council of Governments, Buddy Thompson, to name just two, were talking about a port in Jasper as far back as the early 1970’s and, I believe, even earlier. The port idea has been met with constant and continuous opposition and derision from Charleston and opposition from every South Carolina Governor since I lived in SC, including Mark Sanford. Georgia only recently began to take notice of these efforts and has consistently opposed them since doing so.

The Jasper port will eventually be built because the world market will demand it. However, right now, the opposition in both states is too much to overcome. I suggest that instead of wasting more time and energy on pursuing the Jasper port, we, that is, both states, should all shift our attention to improving the logistical infrastructure on the South Carolina side of the river. Aside from the general ineptitude, wonderfully illustrated by the SC Port Authority’s inability to build a port where there already is one, of SC’s Port Authority, Charleston suffers from terrible ingress and egress problems. So does Savannah but to a lesser degree.

The decision to make Savannah the main port in this part of the south Atlantic was made in Columbia over forty or fifty years ago when South Carolina decided to swing I-95 far into the interior away from the coast. That left Charleston with only east west access, one way in and one way out. This decision was further exacerbated by the SC Port Authority’s decision in the seventies to rely primarily on truck traffic into and out of the port, hopelessly clogging the surface access to Charleston, not only for freight but for every purpose. The existing Navy Yard terminals, if ever rebuilt to modern port standards, even with train access, if that is ever built, will still add almost 5000 trucks per day to I-26 and much more if the channel is deepened to allow Pananmax class vessels, which each tote much more freight than the current vessels, to dock.

The very same logistic problems facing Charleston today will soon overwhelm Savannah, unless she acquires a new “front door.” SC has the open land and easy access to provide that front door. The GA side of the river does not provide this opportunity as the land is largely developed and acquiring a corridor for a new and expanded front door for the port is basically impossible in GA. All interested parties should adopt a strategy of securing and developing this front door in the form of a transportation corridor for rail and road traffic into and out of the port. The corridor can and should be wide enough to accommodate six in and six out lanes for trucks and cars and a wide enough rail footprint within the corridor to accommodate freight and passenger/commuter rail. Inland, we should be developing inter modal sites for breaking bulk as well as tax free zones for storage and manufacture.

The proper political alignment to achieve the Jasper Port does not exist, not at the foreseeable future. We do have everything we need to build what could become one of the most important industrial/logistic corridors in the world. This can be done using, for the greater part, private money, as Savannah’s growth will generate the kind of surface traffic that will offer freight and toll charges sufficient to cover most development costs. Once the land for this corridor and related industrial/logistic sites, so open and available now, is put to another use, the land will become too costly and the opportunity will be gone. That will not be GA, Charleston’s or Columbia’s fault; that will be our fault.

There are some arguments that would say this kind of growth is not what we should want. While I respect that point of view, I disagree with it. Cities grow or they die, they cannot maintain equilibrium. If growth is going to come I believe there are things that can be done to mitigate against the dire consequences of it. Intelligent regional planning is one such thing. Unfortunately, to have even mediocre regional planning the citizens of Georgia and South Carolina will have to stop looking at the Savannah River as a border and start looking at it as a shared resource.

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Photo Credit: mmwm / Creative Commons
Mike Copeland

Mike Copeland

I am old enough to know better. I have a B. A. from Birmingham Southern College and a Master's in City Planning from Georgia Tech. I have worked in SC State government for over a decade leaving as the Deputy Executive Director of the State Budget and Control Board, the state's administrative agency. I have owned the Fontaine Company since 1984 and am the managing member of viscerality.com.llc a management, marketing and consulting company.

I am the author of several novels, some of which you may buy and read if you are of a mind to do so.