By Tom Baxter

If you’ve seen Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed give a speech over the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard his pitch about how important the deepening of the Savannah River is to Atlanta’s future.

For Reed, deepening the Port of Savannah’s channel to accommodate the larger ships soon to be coming through the Panama Canal is key to the development of the region, and thereby to the future health of our city.

If the mayor is correct, events took a fateful turn last week. Reed and other supporters of the Savannah harbor-deepening project now find themselves hostage to something with which they are ill-prepared to cope, namely, politics in South Carolina.

This is really the story of a sort of three-legged sack race, prompted by the Panama Canal expansion to be completed in 2014, and the lure of the riches to be gained by accommodating the larger container ships coming in its wake. The ports of Charleston and Savannah, bitter shipping rivals since the early 19th Century, would both have to be dredged a few feet deeper to receive the new ships, and both got bupkis besides dream-awhile money from the feds in the current budget to finance such an undertaking. Deepening Charleston to 50 feet would cost an estimated $300 million. Deepening the Port of Savannah, which is about 20 miles up the Savannah River in Garden City, to 48 feet would cost an estimated $600 million.

Meanwhile, under an agreement ratified by former governors Mark Sanford and Sonny Perdue, the states have been cooperating in the development of a third port, 14 miles closer to the ocean than Garden City, on a site co-owned by both states in Jasper County, S.C.

This was a situation bound to breed mistrust, and sure enough, when Gov. Nikki Haley got her appointees on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to grant a new hearing and approve a water permit sought by Georgia to begin the Savannah project last November, all hell broke lose on the other side of the river. Haley was accused of taking Georgia’s side in return for political favors. One legislator called it the worst decision by a governor in his lifetime. The board members insisted they approved a compromise between their staff and the Corps of Engineers to satisfy environmental concerns rather than reverse a staff recommendation, but this left few satisfied.

One aspect of South Carolina politics unfamiliar to Georgians is that state agencies and departments quite frequently argue with each other and the governor in public fashion. The week after the DHEC board gave the permit, the S.C. Savannah River Maritime Commission, which is charged with over seeing navigability issues on the river, filed a lawsuit claiming its powers had been usurped.

Not long afterward, the S.C. Ports Authority board cut off funding for its share of the Jasper project, saying it wasn’t sure Georgia is really serious about it. The latest development in the large-sizing of the shipping lanes are the so-called post-Panamax ships – too big even for the enlarged Panama Canal but big enough to go through the Suez Canal and reach the East Coast – which require a channel depth of 50 feet.

The South Carolinians demanded that the original Savannah River dredging plan be changed so that post-Panamax ships could reach the Jasper facility. Not to do so, Ports Authority board chairman Bill Stern said, would mean spending lots of taxpayer dollars only to have “a last generation river.”

Georgians also have little experience with the level of alienation which has grown up over the past decade between the Palmetto State’s Republican legislature and its Republican governors. Sanford vetoed hundreds of bills during his two terms, only to have the legislature routinely override him. Although she wasn’t the first choice of most of her former colleagues, Haley seemed to be moving past the old model in her first year, winning legislative approval for some of her key goals. But the DHEC board vote, and Haley’s role in it, was made to order for another legislative standoff in this year’s session.

In a unanimous vote of both chambers, the legislature rescinded the DHEC permit. If this had been Georgia, that would have been the end of the matter, because the governor wouldn’t have bothered to veto a measure when there were already more than enough votes to override.

But then if Georgia had had the final say, the South probably wouldn’t have gotten into the Civil War. Haley vetoed the bill, saying it violated the principle of division of powers, and last week the legislature voted – 111-1 in the House, 39-0 in the Senate – to override the veto. As if to underscore that this is no longer just a sack race, the South Carolinians also appropriated $180 million for the Charleston expansion, which makes the $47 million bond measure in the budget being considered by the Georgia General Assembly for Savannah look like a pittance.

That’s decisive action in anybody’s legislature. Meanwhile the world isn’t waiting for this dispute to be settled. Other states have their eyes on the large ships (see David Pendered’s report here on North Carolina’s ambitious plans). Doubts are beginning to surface about just how big a bonanza these ships are going to be, and environmental concerns are beginning to multiply.

There may be a way to cobble back together that grand idea of a coordinated regional plan, but with words like “appeasement” and “sellout” being thrown around in our neighboring state, don’t count on it. Remember, these are the people who fired on Fort Sumter.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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1 Comment

  1. The “swamp” of SC politics(mastered artfully in earlier times by “The Swamp Fox”) is a distant second on the list of conundri which must be dealt with, if Palmetto state folk think they can wrest post-Panamax shipping from the likes of Savannah or Norfolk. Their number one problem, not unlike what the wanna-be ports in Florida and NC(ROTFLMAO) must contend with if they wish to be players in the game, is primarily what to do with thousands of freight containers once unloaded from the ship(s). SC politicians must live in a dream, if they believe that their port/rail interface beside the Cooper River is a solution to the need for efficient, interoperable, intermodal services, which global shipping logistics demand.
    Charleston’s harbor assets, particularly in “the Neck”, are woefully lacking when it comes to smooth container interchange between oceanic shipping and US rail infrastructure. A simple web search of Summerville mayor-CSX-Norfolk Southern-opposes, should unlock the morass of Charleston port problems, for instance. When the near two centuries old rail “infrastructure” next to the Cooper was nearly rail-abandoned in recent decades, it was glaringly evident to this observer(who started a “logistics” career in that state, that Charleston(‘s port), which may have been a force during the War of Northern Aggression, would simply cease to be viable(in terms of rail ingress/egress) a century and a half, hence.
    The railway service meisters in Roanoke(Atlanta?) and Jacksonville, and Omaha(ha) and Fort Worth, have made it clear that THEY won’t be making the port-side investments to uprade such problems.
    More likely, in order to enrich themselves, they’ll want taxpayer bailouts, er….public(money)/private(deposit that into CSX/NS/BNSF/UP accounts please) “investments.” And, oh, by the way, few if any jobs will result in any upgrades with public monies, because the “vision” is to robotize portside container handling and to robotize train operations, ultimately. Jobs, schmobbs, who needs, em?

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