CHARLESTON — A $5 billion Savannah River container ship terminal planned since before the Great Recession may not be needed as early as projected because of the world economic slowdown.
The states of Georgia and South Carolina, whose individual ports are in heated competition, are working together to build the terminal on the South Carolina side of the river just downstream from Savannah.
Four years ago, it was estimated the Jasper Ocean Terminal would come online about 2029, about the time container capacity was expected to be exhausted at both the Georgia ports and the Port of Charleston.
On Monday, the joint terminal board heard a preliminary update on a 2008 study expected to be completed early next year that will say if the terminal is economically viable and, if so, when.
As it learned four years ago, the board was told that while the American population is aging, affecting demand for consumer goods, the Southeast is one of the fastest growing areas of nation.
"What has changed a bit is the speed at which China is losing its competitive position as the world's largest manufacturer as well as the fact that U.S. consumers haven't recovered half as well as we would have liked after 2009," Walter Kemmsies, the chief economist at Moffat & Nichols in New York told the board.
Both issues affect international shipping. Moffat & Nichols is the international consulting firm working with the board on planning the new terminal.
The board agreed to proceed with a study of the capacity of the Savannah River to handle new and larger ships that will be calling when the Panama Canal expansion is complete in 2015.
"I'm just wondering now whether our cloudy outlook is cause for taking a breath and asking are we just pedaling a bicycle on a stand?" said Bill Bethea, a South Carolina member of the board.
"I feel we're under a mandate to plan for a Jasper Port on the premise that eventually there will be a demand for it," responded board chairman Jim Balloun of Georgia. "If I had a study in my hands today and it proved demonstrably that there would never be a Jasper port that's viable, then I might do something differently. I don't think that's a possibility."
But "my back-of-the-envelope numbers tell me it's going to be later than 2029" that the new terminal will be online, said Jim Newsome, the president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
Balloun said later that his concern was moving forward with studies for federal permits and on the capacity of the river.
"I can't really say precisely how soon the terminal will be open. We'll open it as soon as there's justification," he said, adding money won't be spent on construction until the project is considered viable.
Just when the terminal might be open "will come into focus over the next five to 10 years," he added.