Savannah: Good news Atlanta mayor says Obama committed to deeper port (copy)

A container ship on the Savannah River nears the Talmadge Bridge on its way to the docks of the Georgia Ports Authority. The agency said Thursday the target for deepening the waterway remains late 2016 or early 2017. Charleston also is looking to dredge its shipping channel. File/AP

The announcement last week that the Georgia Ports Authority will expand its Garden City Terminal and seek a taller bridge over the Savannah River has a South Carolina lawmaker questioning the future of a long-planned maritime facility in Jasper County.

Beaufort senator Tom Davis has advocated for the Jasper Ocean Terminal for more than a decade, but he said Georgia's latest expansion plans might kill the project — a joint venture between the Peach State and South Carolina.

Davis said he wants an investigation into whether South Carolina port officials have dragged their feet on the Jasper project, defying a legislative directive to build it as soon as possible and forcing Georgia to move ahead with expansion at home.

"There's going to be some accounting as to how the State Ports Authority allowed this to happen," Davis said Friday. "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 South Carolina State Ports Authority, said Georgia's announcement doesn't change a thing and Jasper is still on track for a mid-2030s opening when ports in both states reach their capacity.

A Georgia Ports Authority spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia authority, on Thursday outlined a $2.5 billion plan to expand the Port of Savannah over the next decade so it can handle 8 million cargo containers a year — a 45 percent increase over its current 5.5 million capacity.

The plan includes a taller structure to replace the 185-foot-tall Talmadge Bridge so the next generation of container ships can fit underneath and reach the port.

"We have a bridge that cannot handle these ships," Lynch told about 1,400 people who attended his annual "State of the Ports" speech. "We need to start planning the relief of the Talmadge Bridge. And when I say relief, I mean replacement."

Lynch did not discuss the Jasper Ocean Terminal project, to be located on 1,500 acres on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. That port's timeline has been pushed back several times, with an initial completion date in the mid-2020s now projected for between 2035 and 2040.

Davis said he will ask the Legislative Audit Council and the state's Attorney General to investigate why there has been little work toward building the Jasper terminal since it was announced in March 2007 as a way to bring development to one of the state's poorest areas. 

The Jasper port, capable of handling 7 million cargo containers a year, would be the largest terminal ever built in the U.S., at a cost of at least $5 billion. it's overseen by a board comprised of Georgia and South Carolina officials. To date, only a few million dollars have been set aside for permit and engineering studies.

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"I don't understand the level of nonchalance and lack of urgency — there has to be a sense of outrage here," Davis said.

Newsome said ports in both states have room for expansion — a new terminal handling 2.4 million containers is under construction at the Port of Charleston, for example — and it doesn't make sense to open the Jasper site until cargo growth in both states makes it a necessity. 

Under the plan outlined this week, the Port of Savannah would grow to exceed Jasper's proposed capacity over the next 10 years. The Georgia authority also announced a $92 million plan to double its rail capacity by 2020.

The Army Corps of Engineers also is in the middle of a $973 million project to make the Savannah River deep enough to accommodate fully loaded ships carrying up to 14,000 container units. Lynch said he expects ships big enough to carry 22,000 container units will be calling on Savannah within 10 to 15 years.

The current suspension bridge over the river dividing Georgia and South Carolina was completed in 1991 for $71 million. A new bridge is estimated to cost between $250 million and $300 million.

Lynch said the bridge and expansion are needed to meet explosive growth at the Port of Savannah, the fourth-busiest U.S. port for cargo shipped in containers.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Savannah handled a record 4.2 million containers of imports and exports. The port handled 3 million units for the first time just four years earlier. By comparison, the Port of Charleston handled a record 2.2 million containers in its fiscal year that ended June 30.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.