CHARLESTON — The Georgia-South Carolina state board working to develop a $5 billion container ship terminal on the Savannah River will study capacity and navigation on the river to see if the massive terminal is viable once the existing Georgia port reaches its container capacity.
"We have delayed this meeting after meeting after meeting. I just think it makes good business sense that we have an answer to this," said Bill Stern, the chairman of the board of the South Carolina State Ports Authority said.
Stern spoke Monday at the first meeting in nine months of the board comprised of members from both states working on developing a port in Jasper County on the South Carolina side of the river just downstream from Savannah.
Back in December, the South Carolina State Ports Authority Board voted not to commit any additional money to the joint project until the capacity study and other concerns are met. Stern said after Monday's meeting that position holds. The board has enough money to continue operating through fiscal 2013.
"You think we're stalling and aren't sincere about developing a port at Jasper," he told the joint board. "I'm saying as chairman of the Ports Authority, I am fully committed to building a port at Jasper if it can be built. Someone has got to admit there is a capacity limit on the Savannah River."
"All I'm saying is let's just do the studies," Stern said. "If the studies are positive let's move forward."
Jim Balloun of Georgia, the chairman of the joint terminal board said "let's scope it out and let's get it done." He asked the ports authorities from both states to assign someone to help in overseeing the studies.
Jim Newsome, the president and CEO of the South Carolina authority, said later he expected the studies would take about a year to complete.
Balloun said the issue isn't about demand because the capacity at both Charleston and the Georgia ports, Charleston's fierce competitor, is expected to be reached in the next 20 years or so.
"Unless we build the Jasper port, that traffic will go somewhere else. The question people are legitimately asking is there capacity in the river channel for full build-out at Jasper?" he said. "It's a good question. We need to do a channel capacity study."
He said the study would have to consider where additional navigation lanes, turning basins, channel depth and widths are required, what it would cost and when it should be built.
Balloun said that for the studies "as soon as possible would be a good idea."
He added that the studies need to be done before there is any major expenditure of money on the project. But, he said, it is about 10 years away and waiting for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decide on the permit would allow the project to draw on all the corps' research.
Another issue on the South Carolina side has been when the corps, which now uses the terminal site to pour silt dredging from the shipping channel, will release the easements it holds on the property.
The board was told an easement allowing access could be released around 2018, one that would allow the construction of the first phase on 450 acres by 2021 and that covering the rest of the 1,600-acre site in 2026.
The board was also told that as much as $335 million could be saved through a plan in which the corps would put dredge spoils on the area that will be developed first, instead of spreading it through the entire site.