Numbers have to work for smaller Jasper port

Officials must weigh carefully the costs of a smaller, "niche" port in Jasper County versus the revenue it would generate.

The public investment to get a port with no connecting roads or rails up and running is no small investment. And these are not the times for big financial experiments. The port site, a dredge spoil dumping area, sits miles from existing highways.

Port-related road projects discussed in 2008 by Georgia and South Carolina transportation officials included:

  • A 5.8-mile access road from the port to U.S. 17.
  • Widening 6.6 miles of U.S. 17.
  • A bridge replacement crossing the Back River on U.S. 17.
  • A 7.4-mile realignment of U.S. 17.
  • A new interchange on Interstate 95 near Mile Marker 3.
  • An extension of S.C. 170 and Ga. 25 to Jimmy DeLoach Parkway.
  • State Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, who has long worked for a port on the Jasper County side of the Savannah River, is exploring the idea of a small operation that would focus on barge traffic, smaller shippers and refrigerated foods.

    A downturn in shipping has pushed back the dates that the Savannah and Charleston ports are expected to reach capacity. This is critical because the Jasper County port's development is under the auspices of a Georgia-South Carolina venture, and those two ports figure prominently in any calculations for a Jasper County megaport.

    As Davis has pointed out, 2018 had been the expected date for Charleston and Savannah to reach capacity, but now estimates put the date for the two existing ports reaching capacity at 2024 or later.

    A study released in September 2008 by the Joint Project Office, the group directing the bi-state port development, estimated an unmet demand for a shipping port in the Southeast by 2024. A growing demand for larger capacity ships was estimated at 6.7 percent a year until 2025. Until then, the demand would be absorbed by the Savannah and Charleston ports.

    Also, Georgia and South Carolina officials are working to deepen the channels leading to the Charleston and Savannah ports, another factor affecting the viability and timing of a deepwater Jasper County port. Those ports want to be ready for the bigger ships that will be able to use an improved Panama Canal, expected to be ready in 2014.

    Davis says he doesn't want to see the Jasper port plans put on back burner, and that's understandable. He and others have put a lot of work into this endeavor.

    Dean Moss, chairman of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance and the Savannah River Maritime Commission, says paying for the roads and other public projects to support a port would have to be done at some point for the larger Jasper port project. But as we're finding out, there are no guarantees when or whether we'll see a demand for a new megaport.

    Can we afford to bet that big? And when do we place that bet?

    A port for a port's sake doesn't make sense, especially when you factor in the potential environmental costs.

    Keep crunching the numbers and watching the shipping market.