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Charleston boys go rogue on Jasper Port

7 mins read

By Bill Rauch

Handling as many as 7 million containers a year, and by one estimate providing as many as a million jobs by 2040, The Jasper Ocean Terminal will when it is built-out be the largest container port on the east coast, surpassing both New York/New Jersey and Savannah that are currently first and second respectively. 

Moreover because both Savannah’s Talmadge Bridge and Charleston’s Ravenel Bridge are not tall enough for the world’s largest container ships today to pass under, the Jasper Terminal will be the only port in South Carolina and Georgia that can handle the big ships. (The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $1.3B to raise the Bayonne Bridge.) And every year bigger ships are built.

Without question The Jasper Ocean Terminal project is a transformative one, and with the stakes so high it is little wonder the squabbling over them is sometimes intense, especially during budget season.

Recognizing that, every few years since then-Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue and then-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford first came together in 2007 to call for regional peace over regional war, and to express their respective state’s support for The Jasper Ocean Terminal, to keep the project moving forward new governors have had to reaffirm their support.

Now may be another one of those times. Or at least South Carolina State Representative Weston Newton thinks it is. In a meeting with Governor Henry McMaster last week Rep. Newton urged the Governor to reach out to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, seeking a meeting at which on behalf of their respective states the two governors would “renew their vows.”

The last such peace-keeping effort was two years ago when then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley updated the project’s governing pact with Governor Deal, and then went to Jasper County to say the project needs to be “fast-tracked” and that “we need this done yesterday.” Dutifully the Legislature passed a resolution that says the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCPA) who with the Georgia Ports Authority are the project’s managers, should make every effort to move the job along “expeditiously.”

Governor Haley’s proposed fast-track opening date for the new port was 2025.

But since then parochial rivalries appear to have once again surfaced with the effect of their threatening to slow the project.

Last month SCPA’s President and CEO James I. Newsome III told a meeting of legislators in Columbia that the Jasper Ocean Terminal wouldn’t be needed until 2035 or 2037. That’s when the Port of Charleston’s terminals are now predicted to have reached their capacities.

Since when does Jasper have to wait to open until Charleston is at capacity?

That’s the parochial part, or some of it. As we have seen with the SCPA’s handling of both Port of Port Royal and the Jasper Port, the interests of the Port of Charleston seem always to supersede all else at the SCPA.

Another recent indication of this surfaced when SCPA requested $5 million be put into the state’s FY’19 budget for “permitting” at the Jasper Port. The FY’19 budget is currently under consideration in Columbia and due out next month. But then when SCPA came up short on their grants to dredge the Charleston harbor the Authority withdrew the $5M request for Jasper and slid the money over to be added to the $300M for dredging Charleston Harbor that SCPA was already requesting from the state.

The Jasper project is now three years into its estimated eight year permitting process and a year’s funding interruption there could set the opening back more than a year.

“The permitting money will be there when it’s needed,” Rep. Newton told me last week. Governor McMaster agrees, his press secretary, Brian Symmes, told me last week. “The Governor wants to see this project — including its permitting — go forward as soon as possible. The money for permitting the project will be there any time it is needed,” he added.

Luckily for the Jasper port’s proponents the governor appears to mean it. “Governor McMaster intends to do everything he can to help fulfill then Governor Haley’s promise to have the Port operational by 2025. It was the right thing to do then, and it’s the right thing to do now,” his press secretary also told me last week.

Someone better tell the boys at the SCPA whose reappointments require the governor’s signature.

In yet another indication of their recent mischief-making, SCPA also told the legislators in Columbia last month that when SCPA shared with the Georgia Ports Authority’s leadership that SCPA intended to slow Jasper’s opening to 2035 or 2037, Georgia who said Savannah would be at capacity in 2028 indicated they would have to build a new terminal on Hutchison Island to accommodate the excess containers they expect they will handle between 2028 and 2037.

Why not just get Jasper open before Georgia’s current facilities reach their capacity?

Rep. Newton is spot on. What’s needed here is a little leadership (button-holing?) to keep The Jasper Ocean Terminal on its already lengthy timetable. What’s needed are clear orders from the top, and only the governors can provide it.

Time will tell.

I asked both governors’ press secretaries if the governors would be putting their heads together on this. Not surprisingly both ducked the question.

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

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