A Beaufort lawmaker is continuing a push to inject life into a stagnant Jasper County port project and plans to ask for an independent examination into how the state ports agency has handled the proposed facility.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has drafted a letter to a state board composed of members of the public and legislators that probes government agencies' actions and reports its findings to legislators. He plans to ask the S.C. Legislative Audit Council to review whether the S.C. Ports Authority has followed language in state law "to expeditiously develop a port in Jasper County," according to the draft.
Davis also wants to consider asking a court for a declaratory judgment outlining the Ports Authority's responsibilities related to developing the port.
The options will be among topics covered during a conference call Davis organized for later this month with other lawmakers representing areas that would benefit from the Jasper port. Building the port is expected to create hundreds of jobs and millions in wages. The full buildout would be a boon for surrounding counties that are some of the poorest in the state, supporters say.
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"I need to start expanding outward and getting allies in areas that are going to benefit from this," Davis said Tuesday.
Lawmakers and port officials sparred earlier this year when Ports Authority president and CEO Jim Newsome said the Jasper Ocean Terminal wouldn't be needed until 2035, a decade later than supporters hoped.
At issue is the interpretation of the law that the project be expedited and conditions of various agreements, including a 2015 agreement between Georgia and South Carolina port authorities that phases of the Jasper port be "reasonably justified" by capacity needs.
"There is no legislative authority for that condition being imposed and such makes no sense given what makes the Jasper Port a necessity: The ports at Charleston and Savannah, because of height limitations imposed by the Ravenel Bridge and the Talmedge Bridge, cannot handle next-generation ships carrying more than 14,000 TEU’s; the Jasper Port could," Davis wrote in an email Monday to state lawmakers comprising the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance.
In response to Beaufort and Jasper County delegates' concerns earlier this year, Newsome said the Jasper project wouldn't proceed until capacity is met in Charleston, including waiting until completion of the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal in North Charleston. Newsome added that the Georgia Ports Authority is working to accommodate an additional 3.5 million more shipping containers in the upper Savannah River, and S.C. port officials believe Charleston can handle up to 1 million more containers than first estimated after finishing the Leatherman project.
But Newsome also said the agency would begin working with Jasper County lawmakers on necessary infrastructure for the Jasper terminal.
A proviso in the state budget this year tied to money allocated for the Jasper Ocean Terminal calls for the Ports Authority to provide lawmakers a detailed report on progress by the start of the next legislative session and another report by the end of June 2019.
Davis has clashed with the Ports Authority in the past, for years criticizing the maritime agency for its handling of the sale of the Port of Port Royal. He also said in that case he planned to ask the Audit Council to investigate the Ports Authority's handling of the sale, but backed off in order not to muddle the impending deal that finally closed last year.