SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- Plans by Georgia and South Carolina to build a shared terminal for cargo ships on the Savannah River inched forward Monday with an agreement to spend $748,000 on studies and consulting work in the next year. Local officials, hungry for the jobs a new port would bring, complained the states are dragging their feet.
"They're stalling under whatever pretext they can," said Tom Johnson, a councilman for Jasper County, S.C., where the proposed $3.3 billion port terminal would be built. "It's the same thing they've been doing since 2007."
The board of port executives from both states that oversees the Jasper County project approved its budget for the coming fiscal year after an economic study indicated the investment would pay off. Consultants concluded the new port could be finished by 2026, not long before its sister ports in Savannah and Charleston, S.C., start running out of capacity. By 2040, the consultants said, the terminal's value would exceed costs by $1.2 billion.
The news sounded good enough to Jasper County officials that they couldn't understand why the states didn't budget money to start seeking construction permits in the coming year. Port officials say pursuing the necessary federal permits would cost about $2 million per year for a decade, with each state covering half the cost.
"They've got permit paralysis," said Andrew Fulghum, county administrator for Jasper County. "Why not start the permitting process? It needs to become a real project."
The joint port's fiscal 2014 budget contains enough funding for the states to start working with the Army Corps of Engineers to get ready to file applications for construction permits, which could happen as early as a year from now, said Jim Balloun, Georgia's ranking member of the two-state board.
Meanwhile the board budget money for a study to make sure the Savannah River would be able to handle the ship traffic generated by adding an extra terminal. The river is already used by cargo ships headed to the Port of Savannah, the nation's fourth busiest container port.
"I'm comfortable that we're on schedule," Balloun said. "I can't imagine anything we could be doing right now that would speed up the project."
Still, Jasper County officials say they're tired of waiting. The county is among the poorest in South Carolina and its elected and business leaders have dreamed for two decades of boosting jobs by adding a shipping terminal. Efforts to build and operate the terminal locally were blocked by Georgia and South Carolina, which decided in 2007 after prolonged legal battles to pursue the new port as a partnership between the states.
Another conflict between the states, over Georgia's plans to deepen the shared river channel to make room for larger cargo ships coming to Savannah, slowed progress on the Jasper project for the past two years. Legal challenges over the $652 million Savannah harbor deepening were recently settled out of court.
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, said the economic study looks promising. But he said some big questions still need answering before South Carolina decides on such a major investment. While current plans call for deepening the Savannah River shipping channel from 42 to 47 feet, Newsome said the states should push for even deeper water — 50 feet — from the Jasper port site to the ocean. It took Georgia more than 13 years to win approval to dredge to 47 feet.
"The corps has studied it up and down the East Coast and the number that keeps coming up is 50 feet" to accommodate cargo ships that are growing in size, Newsome said. "Why not go for it? We're investing in a terminal now. Why tie our hands behind our backs?"