Archive for Monday, January 16, 2012

Bureaucracy mires port improvements

January 16, 2012


— Thanks to globalization, and to containerized shipping that began in 1956 and makes globalization work, commodities swiftly move vast distances around the planet. Wal-Mart alone imports 400,000 containers a year. Trade flows can, however, be deflected or even defeated by a distance of just five feet. Herewith a story of the high costs of a few feet and of too many years required for our nation’s increasingly sluggish public processes to move. This city’s port, the East Coast’s fourth busiest (1.38 million shipping containers a year), is 45 feet deep. But in two years the Panama Canal will open a larger set of locks capable of handling ships 50 percent wider and with deeper drafts than today’s “Panamax” ships — the largest that can currently transit the canal.

The first container ship reached Charleston in 1966, carrying 600 containers. Today the port receives ships carrying more than 9,000. By 2014, there will be 1,200 “post-Panamax” ships — marvels of naval architecture, floating mountains — built for commerce after the canal widening. They will carry up to 18,000 containers. The widening, says Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, will be “the biggest game-changer in the history of containerization.”

Charleston could be out of the game, with huge anti-competitive consequences for the burgeoning manufacturing and exporting industries of the Southeast — BMW, Michelin, General Electric (turbines) and others in South Carolina alone. By 2014, two-thirds of the world’s container capacity will be carried by ships bigger than the unwidened canal could handle. Some things are moving rapidly.

There are four southeastern ports along 400 miles of Atlantic coast — Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville — but none is 50 feet deep. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must do the dredging, says, on the basis of preliminary studies of other harbors, that the harbor in Charleston “would probably be the cheapest South Atlantic harbor to deepen to 50 feet.”

Determining the feasibility of such projects typically takes five to eight years even if expedited (10 years or longer if not). Perhaps Congress could require globalization to pause while America studies things. Or perhaps post-Panamax vessels will be willing to loiter offshore a decade or so.

The federal government would pay $120 million, South Carolina $180 million. The $300 million — a sum equal to a rounding error on the General Motors bailout — would be quickly recouped as the deepened port delivered more than $100 million in net benefits annually. Today, 70 percent of imports from Asia arrive at West Coast ports and are distributed inland by truck and rail. But shipping is the cheapest transportation per mile and will become cheaper with post-Panamax ships, including those coming here.

Newsome says the study for deepening Savannah’s harbor was made in 1999. It is 2012 and studies for the environmental impact statement are not finished. When they are, the project will take five years to construct. “But before that,” he says laconically, “they’re going to be sued by groups concerned about the environmental impact.” A Newsome axiom — that institutions become risk averse as they get challenged — is increasingly pertinent as America changes from a nation that celebrated getting things done to a nation that celebrates people and groups who prevent things from being done.

Newsome says that because of labor costs — in constructing and crewing ships — America has essentially no deep-sea shipping industry. This is a facet of the de-industrialization of the nation. But the nation is currently enjoying a renewed export boom, which accelerates the need for deep harbors.

The huge project of widening the Panama Canal began in 2006; it will be completed in eight years. Newsome, who is unstinting in his praise of the Army Corps, knows it must comply with ever-thickening layers of laws. But even if we stipulate that all these laws are wonderful, we should also stipulate that surely things would move faster if the nation faced an emergency. Such as economic enfeeblement.

The Empire State Building was built in 14 months during the Depression, the Pentagon in 16 in wartime. The aircraft carrier Yorktown, which earned 11 battle stars in the Pacific and now is anchored here, was built in less than 17 months, back when America was serious about moving forward. Is it necessary to take eight years — just two years less than it took to build the Panama Canal with yellow fever and without computers — to deepen this harbor five feet?

George Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 10 months ago

Translation-- screw the environment, and let's get on with the race to the bottom.

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 10 months ago

It seems to me that George Will is guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill here. And of being rather misleading while doing so.

The east coast already had post-Panamax ports available: NY/NJ, Baltimore, and Norfolk. Perhaps more important in terms of this column, the Port of Miami, which started dredging last July, will complete its post-Panamax expansion by 2014 when the new locks it's not like there won't be any southeastern ports able to handle the bigger ships or that the federal government has been blocking all efforts to expand ports.

Plus, even the increased size of these container ships doesn't mean that Asia will start shipping all their East Coast goods through the Panama Canal. It will be a matter of which is more important...speed of delivery versus cost of delivery, since it won't be any faster to ship through the Canal to the East Coast than it is now. Plus, Charleston and Savannah may find themselves losing out to Miami even if they were dredged because Miami is 1-2 days closer to the Panama Canal, so it's quite possible that shippers may find dropping their containers at Miami a better compromise of speed and expense.

Oh...and about those environmental concerns? Well, they're part of a much bigger problem that George Will failed to mention. The progress of Charleston's dredging project is significantly behind Savannah's, and now South Carolina officials favor developing a new port in Jasper County, SC...which is actually near the Savannah, GA port - but miles closer to the ocean.

So...what's Georgia's dredging plan for their Savannah port? Well, dredging the Savannah River up to the Port of Savannah will require removing and disposing of tons of sludge with dangerously high levels of cadmium. And where do they want to dump it? In the jointly-state-owned area of Jasper County...where the SC government wants to build its new post-Panamax port!

Will also forgot to mention that SC governor Nikki Haley actually approved of this plan...which would take federal money away from dredging the Port of Charleston and give it to Georgia for the dredging of the Port of Savannah.

Will also forgot to mention the geological problems (not environmental issues) with dredging Charleston deep enough...and how SC's own US Senator, Jim DeMint, voted against providing the funds to determine whether or not sufficiently deep dredging was even possible. Speaking of deep dredging? Savannah's plans only include dredging to 48' - even though maritime experts are saying that 50' is the minimum required.

Perhaps George Will shouldn't be in such a hurry to blame the federal government for problems that certainly seem to have a much, much more local flavor.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for providing the info that George couldn't see fit to even gloss over.

Orwell 5 years, 10 months ago

His real concern about employment is this: if he couldn't blame the federal government for everything the resulting writer's block would render him unemployable.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 10 months ago

+1, LOL. And I actually like Mr. Will's work. He's a conservative, unlike most of the clowns running for office who only play one on TV.

jayhawklawrence 5 years, 10 months ago

My first thought regarding this odd choice of topics for George Will was that it had something to do with Tea Party leader Jim DeMint.

Would federal monies flowing into South Carolina violate the Tea Party creed of paying your own way?

Whenever you tie yourself to an absolute and flawed view such as the Tea Party does, you are going to end up in a moral catch 22 and when the compromise happens, it will have to be done in a back room somewhere.

The Tea Party brand of Conservatism as well as other extreme groups such as the Ron Paul crowd have exploited the naivete of a small minority of Americans.

Unfortunately, history shows that most of the most damaging political movements began with a veneer of moral idealism and innocence.

The Republican style of slash and burn politics and their lying propaganda machine has turned off most Americans and unfortunately, their leadership is just digging in their heals and increasing the spending on negative ads and deception within their own party.

There is a solution.

Good character, honesty and a willingness to sacrifice yourself for the greater good are qualities that will resound with voters as well as a move toward the center and away from right wing conservatism and Bush-Cheney style foreign policy.

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