By Mike Klein
Make no mistake about it, a deeper trench in the Savannah River harbor and channel is a really big deal to ensure that Georgia’s port remains globally competitive, but when you look down the road just a few years there is an even more critical strategic priority: building a completely new port. The proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal would be constructed in South Carolina on land owned by Georgia and it would benefit from the new deeper Savannah River access to the Atlantic Ocean, and the world.
“We have stated many times that we need to deepen the harbor here at Savannah, we need to deepen the harbor at Charleston and we need to ultimately build the port at Jasper County,” on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, said Billy Birdwell, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah. “At some point Charleston and Savannah will reach their capacity but we predict trade and commerce will continue to grow. We will need the Jasper port as well. We will need all of them.”
SHEP – the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project – will deepen the existing 32-mile-long harbor and extend the channel eight miles further into the Atlantic Ocean. The current 42-foot Savannah River low tide depth will be dredged to 47 feet with a 54-foot high tide capacity. The project timetable is three years. When SHEP improvements finish in late 2017 or early 2018 Savannah will be able to handle the world’s largest container ships loaded to full capacity.
“Georgia has done an outstanding job dealing with the landside components, our port capacity, the inland capacity with road and rail,” said Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz. The GPA spends more than $100 million per year on internal improvements. “The one Achilles heel we have had has been the limited depth of the Savannah River.”
Savannah docks 37 container ships per week. These sea beasts move the world’s products. Ships that call at Savannah transit through the Panama and Suez Canals. Their reach is everywhere in the world. Savannah port demand is expected to exceed its capacity within 15-to-20 years. “Under almost any growth curve when you reach the 2030 to 2035 timeframe both of our ports (Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina) are effectively maxed out,” said Foltz.
Georgia owns 13,000 acres on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. The proposed Jasper Ocean Terminal would be constructed on two massive sections of that site. The proposed location is sections 14A and 14B in yellow on a color-coded SHEP project map published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The yellow section is where 24 million cubic yards of ocean and river bottom will be deposited during SHEP dredging expected to start this fall. Watch this video.
The Savannah River harbor and channel are continuously dredged to maintain current levels so to most folks, all this effort will look like business as usual. “It’s not going to look any different from what we do anyway,” said Birdwell at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Initial deepening will occur in a 20-mile section of the Atlantic Ocean, starting at approximately Fort Pulaski.
Getting this far with SHEP took nearly fifteen years, lots of scientific analysis, lots of politics, lots of environmental mitigation, lots of compromise, lots of expense. SHEP is currently funded at $652 million and the Corps says 25 percent of that total is cost overrun contingency funding. Up to $706 million is authorized by federal legislation but that amount has not been appropriated.
Savannah’s port is a robust economic engine that generates $61 billion in annual revenue and it supports more than 320,000 jobs in Georgia and South Carolina. Savannah is the fourth largest port nationally, the second largest on the East Coast behind only New York – New Jersey ports, and Savannah is the nation’s fastest growing port in terms of containers served.
Savannah operates at 50 percent maximum docking capacity with 7 percent annual growth over the past decade. GPA Executive Director Foltz predicted that even if annual growth was reduced to 4 percent, which nobody expects, the Garden City Terminal at Savannah would reach 80 percent capacity before 2030. “It starts getting tight,” Foltz said. “That’s our story.”
Jasper Ocean Terminal would be operated as a Georgia – South Carolina port and nearly every detail about that relationship is a work-in-progress, as is the extensive federal review process. Foltz predicted it could take twenty years to fully move from concept to an operational facility.
“South Carolina and Georgia both recognize we need to take advantage of the Savannah River,” Foltz said. “It’s not a complicated site but as you can expect there aren’t any easy wins today when you talk about coastal development. We’re already kind of behind the curve.”
When I served four terms in the state Senate, one of the few places where you could go to always and get concrete information about real solutions was the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. That hasn’t changed. [The Foundation] is really right up there at the top of the state think tanks, so you should be very proud of the work that they are doing!