With disagreements in the past, Jasper port board focuses on landmark permit application

Savannah’s Talmadge Bridge is visible from the site of the planned Jasper Ocean Terminal on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.

With a permit application looming and a brand new design that will more quickly load and unload the huge container ships headed to the East Coast in future years, the once-contentious Jasper Ocean Terminal project is moving forward with speed and a spirit of cooperation.

“If everything goes right ... we should dump a permit this fiscal year for the actual construction of the Jasper terminal,” David Posek, chairman of the Jasper Ocean Terminal Joint Project board of directors, said during the group’s meeting last month. “It’s been a long time coming.”

With their divisive days behind them — arguments between South Carolina and Georgia ports officials over dredging at the nearby Port of Savannah have subsided — Posek called the bi-state board’s most recent gathering “a watershed meeting.”

The board is waiting until after the Army Corps of Engineers announces its final decision on deepening Charleston Harbor, expected in September, to submit its permit application for channel deepening and widening and construction of the Jasper terminal. The 1,500-acre site is in Jasper County near the Georgia border, about 15 miles from the Port of Savannah on the Savannah River.

While engineering and geotechnical studies have been ongoing, initial work on the $3.3 billion project will begin in the coming months when tons of material dredged as part of the Port of Savannah deepening project is dumped on the Jasper terminal site.

A study completed this year shows the dredging and the large container ships that will be attracted to Georgia’s port won’t clog the Savannah River, leaving enough room for the Jasper terminal to succeed.

“What the study is telling us is there are modifications that are going to be needed, in an efficient way, but the river can accommodate both,” Posek said in January when the study was released.

Michael Rieger, associate vice president at Moffatt & Nichol, the infrastructure advising group planning the terminal project, said the dredging will benefit the Jasper project because the Army Corps likely will dump enough dredged material on the site to raise it by 27 feet.

“When we get that six feet of settlement, we believe that’s about the amount of material we’re going to need to develop this site,” Rieger said during the board meeting. Rieger said his group will continue to monitor test embankments as the Savannah dredging continues to see whether the soil will be stable enough for construction.

“We’ll have a better idea after a year of what’s occurring and after the Corps places their material on there,” he said.

Moffatt & Nichol also has updated the terminal’s design plan to reflect the need for more efficiency.

The plan calls for cargo boxes to be offloaded horizontally from ships and then stacked horizontal to the waterside wharf wall. That is opposite the way cargo boxes are stacked at the S.C. State Ports Authority’s workhorse Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. Keeping the cargo boxes parallel to the wharf wall will cut back on the amount of equipment needed on the ground to move cargo, which will cost less money and increase the number of moves that can be made during a given time.

The design shift was needed, Rieger said, to accommodate large ships carrying 18,000 or more cargo boxes. Those vessels are becoming more commonplace, with 88 of them ordered by the world’s top carriers and more on the way, according to industry newsletter Alphaliner.

“We haven’t had at our existing terminals the need to get to that productivity level yet,” Rieger said. “We haven’t had 18,000 (cargo box) ships coming in. If you think of a vessel today that’s maybe offloading 1,500 to 2,000 (containers), and it’s doing that over 24 to maybe 48 hours, if you did the math the (18,000-container) ship would be here for a week.

“Well, it can’t be. It has to be out within three to four days.”

The new configuration will let up to five cranes offload each ship carrying 18,000 or more cargo boxes. Ships that large won’t fit under the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston or the Talmadge Bridge in Savannah, leaving Jasper as the only site in the fast-growing South Carolina-Georgia sea trade corridor.

In addition, the terminal’s wharf wall has been moved 500 feet back from its original location to let ships pass each other more easily. The new location would allow an 18,000-cargo-box ship unload at the Jasper terminal while another ship passes along the river on its way to the Garden City Terminal in Savannah.

The plan also calls for two truck gates into the planned terminal instead of one, and an intermodal yard that is separated from the cargo container yard. There will be four overpasses in the container yard that will allow cargo movements without holding up cross-terminal traffic.

The Jasper port would be owned and jointly operated by South Carolina and Georgia and will be needed when ports in those states reach capacity, most likely in about 18 years. Permitting and construction for the Jasper port will take about a decade, and the first phase could open by 2026.

The ports in Charleston and Savannah have been rivals for years, with each competing for many of the same import and export customers. The Jasper project has shown both sides the benefits of cooperation when it comes to large infrastructure needs. It comes at a time when all of the big shipping lines have formed partnerships of their own.

“I think in the era of mega-alliances, it can make some sense for regionally co-located ports to consider,” Jim Newsome, the SPA’s president and CEO, said of interstate cooperation. Newsome said the South Carolina and Georgia ports, along with the Jasper project, are investing a combined $10 billion or more in infrastructure improvements over the next 30 years.

“Neither port has rates and earnings that justify that level of investment right now,” he said. “And at the same time, the (shipping) lines are getting bigger and working together to try to lower our prices.”

Ultimately, Newsome said, the level of cooperation “will be dictated by the capital demands of this region.”

The Jasper board, which includes representatives of both state’s ports authorities, last month approved a $2.5 million budget for its new fiscal year, which started July 1. The costs will be split. Work scheduled for the upcoming year includes geological studies and conceptual work on a terminal design, as well as efforts to recruit a third-party required for completion of an environmental impact study.

The South Carolina and Georgia ports authorities have contributed $8.3 million toward the project since 2011.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_