JASPER CO., SC (WTOC) - A Lowcountry lawmaker hopes there is strength in numbers to convince the South Carolina Ports Authority to move forward faster on the Jasper Ocean Terminal Project.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is organizing a meeting of 15 lawmakers representing the seven-counties - Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties - in the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance to advocate for the new port.
"This is the time of reckoning right now," Davis said. "Whether the Jasper port becomes a reality is going to be decided in the next few months."
Earlier this year, the South Carolina Ports Authority announced a new container storage plan at the Port of Charleston meant it wouldn't need the Jasper Ocean terminal until 2035. Davis says that shouldn't matter because it's not what lawmakers told the ports authority to do nine years ago.
"The general assembly told them in 2009 that they shall expeditiously build a port in Jasper County," he said. "It didn't say when it's convenient to the South Carolina state ports authority. It didn't say when you'd squeezed every last bit of capacity out of Charleston."
He said the group plans to discuss several options to ensure one of the poorest areas of the state gets an economic boost he says it deserves.
"What you're talking about is denying them economic growth," Davis said. "You're denying them good, high-paying jobs.[The Jasper Ocean Terminal] means giving them a real, good-paying job. I mean, if we want to do something about the so-called corridor of shame, if we want to improve healthcare outcomes, if we want better schools, if we want people to have higher incomes, you've got to let them have economic development. You have to let economic activity occur."
The Jasper Ocean Terminal is a joint project between the South Carolina Ports Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority.
Georgia's Garden City terminal is set to hit container capacity in 2028 according to Davis, and it, therefore, needs a place for the overflow sooner than Charleston. Davis says if the Jasper ocean terminal isn't built in time, South Carolina may lose the opportunity.
"What you're effectively doing is you're telling the Georgia Ports Authority they better start looking at other alternatives, and they might," he said. "And if that happens, you can kiss the Jasper Ocean Terminal goodbye. We have got in Jasper County on the Savannah River the last, best remaining deep-water port site on the East Coast. It is the only site on the East Coast, other than Norfolk, that can handle the next generation of ships because the next generation of ships, they can't get under the Talmadge Bridge to get to the Savannah port. They can't get under the Ravenel Bridge to get to the Charleston Port. They need the Jasper Port, which is seaward of those bridges. This is something we can have for the benefit of both states."
The South Carolina Ports Authority said in a statement Tuesday it is working to assess infrastructure needs for the Jasper Ocean Terminal this fiscal year.
"The Jasper Ocean Terminal is a joint venture shared by the South Carolina and Georgia Ports Authorities," the statement said. "As such, the timing of the Jasper Ocean Terminal, which will be the largest container terminal ever to be constructed in the U.S., is dependent upon market demand and existing and permitted port capacity of both South Carolina and Georgia. The most important work to be completed near-term is the assessment of road and rail infrastructure necessary for accessing the terminal, which is the focus of a work plan for the current fiscal year."
Davis said he was scheduled to speak with the South Carolina Ports Authority Board Chairman Tuesday. The seven-county lawmaker conference call is set for July 23, and he said there are several strategies lawmakers will consider.
"One would be perhaps a declaratory judgment action in the circuit court to determine whether or not the South Carolina Ports Authority has expeditiously developed the port in Jasper," he said. "I think it's pretty evident that they haven't. Another would be having the legislative audit council make an inquiry into what they've done and have them issue findings as to whether or not they have expeditiously developed the port in Jasper, and it's clear that it has not. There are options that we can pursue. What I want to figure out is this: what is the quickest way, the most convincing way we can demonstrate that this port in Jasper will be available in 2028 when the capacity is needed by Georgia? That's what I'm focused on right now."