Biden scheduled back-to-back trips to the ports, which are both among East Coast ports scrambling for federal permits and funding to make room for supersized cargo ships expected to begin arriving in 2015 through an expanded Panama Canal. The timing of Biden’s visit ensures both Georgia and South Carolina can claim White House support without the Obama administration appearing to favor one over the other.
One former port executive who’s very familiar with the longstanding rivalry between the two seaports, which operate barely 100 miles apart, said he’s suspects the administration squeezed both ports into Biden’s schedule intentionally with at least some knowledge of their competitive — and sometimes combative — history.
South Carolina officials in the state Legislature and the courts have tried to stop or at least stall Georgia’s plans to deepen more than 30 miles of the Savannah River until a settlement was reached in April. The river forms a shared boundary between the states, and is also the gateway for cargo ships to reach the Savannah port.
“These projects have the added controversy of opposition from across the river, which I think is very unfortunate because they’re both very critical,” said Bernard Groseclose, an international port consultant who served as chief executive of the South Carolina State Ports Authority from 1996 to 2009. “The way the administration must be looking at this is they don’t need to be showing favoritism toward one port or another.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, which approved deepening the Savannah harbor last year, plans to spend $652 million and could finish the job as early as 2016. Charleston hopes to receive a permit for its own $350 million harbor expansion from the federal government in 2015, with construction taking several more years. The federal and state governments would share the cost of each project.
With Georgia’s harbor expansion plans years ahead, South Carolina lawmakers feared losing more ground after Savannah pulled ahead of Charleston to become the nation’s fourth busiest container port in 2006. The South Carolina Legislature voted last year to undo a permit granted by their state regulators to allow Georgia to deepen the Savannah River channel.
The feud put Republican Gov. Nikki Haley against legislators from her own party. One of them, Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston, called the governor “the sole person in the state of South Carolina who is intent on helping Georgia gain an advantage over South Carolina.”
The dispute ended up in federal court, where a settlement was reached in April allowing the Georgia project to move forward. Georgia officials have pledged to support Charleston’s harbor expansion. And with Washington lawmakers having sworn off so-called earmarks that allowed congressmen to slip pet projects into spending bills, there may be more incentive for port states to work together.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina noted during a stop at the Charleston port last March: “There will be no legislation that deals solely with Charleston.”
The Obama administration has treated both states evenhandedly as it’s spent the past year touting the need to invest in major U.S. ports from New York to Miami.
The Army Corps said in a report to Congress last year that Southeast seaports need up to $5 billion to deepen their shipping channels so they can trade with giant ships awaiting completion of the Panama Canal expansion. The East Coast only has three ports — New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va. — with waterways deep enough to accept the fully loaded ships regardless of tides.
Both Savannah and Charleston were among five U.S. ports with pending projects that the White House deemed worthy of expedited treatment last year. When Obama visited the neighboring Port of Jacksonville, Fla., on July 25 he put in a plug for Charleston and Savannah as well. And Obama mentioned the importance of improving all three ports in an interview with Jay Leno on NBC’s “Tonight Show” in early August.
“Historically it’s been South Carolina and Georgia battling it out and we’re going to continue to do that, but there’s also a greater good,” said Page Siplon, executive director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics. “As a region the Southeast in many ways, whether it’s the growth of the manufacturing base and auto industry or population growth, just keeps rising. And you’re seeing that through these high-profile visits.”