“South Carolinians who care about jobs and the economy should be proud of their governor, Nikki Haley.”

Editorial, Savannah Morning News

These days, Nikki Haley is one popular governor in Savannah. That editorial continues, “Many Palmetto State lawmakers have aligned themselves with powerful political forces that are trying to sabotage the Jasper project behind the scenes .… to snuff out any and all competition with the Charleston port — even if it means sacrificing the interests of some fellow South Carolinians in the process.”

Strong words, for sure, but in the editorial’s premise, Nikki Haley rises heroically beyond sinister conspiracies. She rescues Greater Savannah’s interests in port development against a firming South Carolina legislative mindset dead-set against anything good happening at the Port of Savannah, including the Jasper port project.

Haley vetoed two bills that would have changed governance of the Jasper project, then lectured the legislature that she supports “the development and expansion of all of our State’s ports — Georgetown, Charleston and Jasper — and will not choose one over the other.”

But the problem with that message is that Jasper is not a port, yet, — and it has a very long way to go. Surely, Gov. Haley notices that the Jasper project is stuck in pluff-mud on both sides of the river.

The project was conceived in 2007 with the great promise of economic benefits in Georgia and South Carolina. But it’s been a public policy shotgun wedding ever since. A S.C. legislator blames former Gov.Mark Sanford for “making the worst deal ever — ever!”

Now, the firming South Carolina view — especially among legislators — is that Georgia’s embrace of the project is a disingenuous strategy to gain South Carolina support for deepening the Savannah River. Let’s see how interested they are in Jasper once the deepening is completed, a South Carolina maritime leader argued.

Meetings have been testy and the S.C. State Ports Authority has limited its funding support. There have been serial debates about lines of authority and the roles of the S.C. Maritime Commission. Governor Haley’s meddling in the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s permit appeal processes for the Savannah Harbor project was soundly rejected by the S.C. General Assembly.

This is no way to plan a world class seaport terminal on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.

S.C State Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern, a successful commercial developer, describes the Jasper project in plain terms: “It’s just a bad business deal for South Carolina for now.” His double-edged reason — the Savannah River’s navigation channels are inadequate for state-of-the-art port operations — and will be, even if the pending Savannah River deepening project is completed.

But the Georgia Ports Authority asserts the Jasper project is a sweet deal for South Carolina, noting it’s the long-range development footprint for the fourth busiest container port in the U.S. (That would be Savannah.) And by the way, Georgians note, the proposed channel deepening would produce enough dredged material to fill the initial development site, saving more than $100 million in initial project costs.

But a growing list of environmental groups object to the Savannah deepening project for a growing list of reasons, just as the project approaches its ready-for-construction phase. Lawsuits are flying and threaten to delay Savannah’s deepening project for years. Savannahians, of course, believe this is a South Carolina conspiracy to slow or halt the Savannah deepening project while Charleston’s 50-foot project catches up. Gov. Haley might even share that view.

So, the Jasper project, one very attractive long-term port development concept, is caught in the cross-fire of Charleston and Savannah port ambitions and mounting environmental concerns about the Savannah River deepening project. This has become an ugly, unbecoming public policy charade that yells out to Gov. Haley and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal for leadership.

If it’s possible to get this project once and for all on a track of mutual trust and ambition, then do it, governors. If not, then terminate a very troubled confederation, and wait for a better day to proceed.

Ron Brinson is a North Charleston city councilman and former associate editor of this newspaper. He was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986-2002. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.