Picture the future: The established ports of Charleston, Savannah and the proposed terminal in Jasper County working as one. Two states. Three ports. One port authority.
Bill Stern, chairman of what is now the S.C. State Ports Authority, suggests that the future could involve the maritime agencies of South Carolina and Georgia merging their assets to compete for global shipping business.
He dubs his vision the Southeast Regional Ports Authority, a joint maritime agency, not just for the development of the Jasper terminal, but for all of the two states' port operations.
He thinks the notion holds water. After all, if the ports authorities were private businesses, it's likely a merger would have happened years ago, he said. And his notion has some heavyweight support in the General Assembly.
"As a businessman this makes perfect sense to me," Stern said. "For good, bad or indifferent, this is a global economy. I just feel it's time we started thinking regionally."
Officials at the Georgia Port Authority declined to comment.
The offices of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his Georgia counterpart, Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the benefits of competition between the states' ports outweigh any advantages of combining those resources.
Perdue's spokesman, Bert Brantley, said keeping the ports separate will help make each party more effective and efficient.
Joel Sawyer, Sanford's press secretary, said the two states worked very well together formulating the Jasper plan, but that proposal was a unique situation. Put simply, because of the legal baggage that came with the project, neither state stood a chance of building the port alone.
As far as existing facilities are concerned, customers will benefit from maintaining the status quo, Sawyer said.
"We think there's a value to competition," he said. "Our stand would be to leave the core operations with the respective states."
But Stern's vision does have at least one influential supporter in state House Speaker Bobby Harrell. The Charleston Republican said he thinks the idea "is worth looking into," but added it's vital that any agreement protects South Carolina's economic advantage.
A new port in Jasper is likely to be more competitive for Savannah than Charleston — it is, after all, 12 miles closer to the open ocean than Savannah. But the Palmetto State couldn't afford to miss out on the statewide economic boost that development would spur, Harrell said.
Yet if the governors of the two states could agree on a marriage, it then would be only a matter of legislation, he said.
"Certainly, there's an opportunity out there, and we should explore it," Harrell said.
For Stern, the tie-up is an obvious fit. Both states have well-run operations, they're neighbors and have important East Coast locations, he said. They even share many of the same customers.
A coming together of the two ports authorities is not beyond the realm of possibility. The agencies enjoy antitrust immunity and can file what's called a "discussion agreement" with the Federal Maritime Commission over matters of "common interest."
Other ports in the country already work together. The Los Angeles and Long Beach ports in California work as one on some environmental issues and infrastructure but operate essentially as separate entities.
The Port Authority of New York-New Jersey is one agency but has extensive operations beyond marine cargo terminals, such as New York-area airports, bridges and tunnels, and rail transportation. The Delaware River Port Authority in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey also operates as a single agency.
But what usually counts in the world of global shipping is what the ports' customers want.
One of those customers is Mediterranean Shipping Co., the world's No. 2 steamship line and the Port of Charleston's second-largest customer. The shipper also makes regular calls in Savannah.
Sergio Fedelini, the company's vice president in Mount Pleasant, said thinking regionally rather than locally is a concept he welcomes.
While steamship lines want ports to compete, he said, what they want most is efficiency.
"We want our ships turned round as quickly as possible," he said. "We want the best service."
South Carolina and Georgia could combine the ports of Charleston, Jasper and Savannah to offer very real competition to the likes of New York and the Virginia ports, Fedelini said.
Stern said the role of a ports authority used to be about accommodating waterborne commerce, but now it's about economic development. He thinks that one-plus-one will equal more than two if the ports think together on a regional basis.
"In the future, those are going to be the huge winners," he said.