With a state senator questioning their commitment to the project, the State Ports Authority's board of directors last week reaffirmed their support for the Jasper Ocean Terminal, scheduled for completion sometime around 2035.
"For the first time in a long time, I'm more optimistic that I think this will become a reality some day," SPA chairman Bill Stern said of the seaport planned along South Carolina's side of the Savannah River in rural Jasper County. Port authorities in South Carolina and Georgia have formed a joint venture to build the terminal.
"You all may hear a lot of discussion out there that so and so is not committed, " Stern said. "Right now, both port authorities are aligned and moving forward."
Stern was referring to questions state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, raised after the Georgia Ports Authority announced plans last month to expand capacity at its Garden City Terminal and possibly replace the 185-foot-tall Talmadge Memorial Bridge to make it easier for big container ships to call on the Peach State port.
Davis said he's worried those plans will kill the Jasper terminal, a project he's championed for more than a decade. And he's accusing South Carolina port officials of dragging their feet to sabotage the plans.
“There’s going to be some accounting as to how the State Ports Authority allowed this to happen,” Davis told The Post and Courier. “This is negligence in regard to a valuable asset for the people of South Carolina and it won’t stand.”
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA, said Georgia's expansion plans put both agencies on the same development timeline.
Even with the expansion, Georgia's port will reach its capacity by roughly 2035. South Carolina's maritime agency expects its new Leatherman Terminal, under construction in North Charleston, to be full at about the same time. Newsome said that's when the Jasper site is going to be needed, despite some lawmakers' desire to build it sooner.
"The bottom line is that Jasper is the only alternative for either South Carolina and Georgia going forward," said David Posek, vice chairman of the Jasper Ocean Terminal Joint Venture Board of Directors and a member of the SPA board.
"In the end, Jasper is the long-term answer for both states," Posek said.
Newsome said he doesn't blame the Georgia ports officials for wanting to replace the Talmadge span. A higher clearance would make it easier for the next generation of container ships carrying 19,000 or more cargo boxes to pass underneath the bridge.
"It would be logical for anyone at a major port to try to remove each and every limitation you have toward handling big ships," he said.
But Newsome takes exception to an assertion Davis has repeatedly made that the Ravenel Bridge poses the same height limitations. He said simulations have shown that a ship carrying 19,000 containers "can come into this harbor now."
"There is some question in some minds about that. We can handle a 19,000 ship in Charleston Harbor. That's a fact," Newsome said.
Once built, the Jasper port would be capable of handling 7 million cargo containers a year. It would be the largest terminal ever built in the U.S., at a cost of at least $5 billion. To date, only a few million dollars have been set aside for permits and engineering studies.