Thinking about 2058

Thinking about 2058

If you were given a blank sheet and told to design the most efficient South Atlantic port system possible, would you specify separate port authorities for the adjacent states of Georgia and South Carolina? Probably not, which is why a recent suggestion by Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, is so intriguing. Stern floated the once unimaginable idea of merging the two states' port authorities. He said a regional approach to port development would benefit both states' economies.

It won't happen any time soon. Both states' governors quickly rejected the proposal, insisting that Georgia and South Carolina each gain more through competition than they would through a port merger.

But Stern has raised a serious point that deserves serious discussion. One who's been thinking about it is Ron Brinson, a former New Orleans port director and American Association of Port Authorities president. Now retired in his hometown of Charleston, Brinson still keeps an eye on the industry where he spent most of his career. He doesn't know Stern, but believes his suggestion has merit.

"It was an expression of fresh thinking in an industry too often gripped by ponderous notions that port authorities are intractable business and governance models and must always avoid any cutting-edge creativity," Brinson wrote in an op-ed column published Dec. 10 in the Charleston Post & Courier, which also reported Stern's proposal.

Stern's idea isn't completely new - the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has existed since 1921. And Georgia and South Carolina may not even be the most logical candidates for port mergers. Other potential port pairings could include Miami and Port Everglades, Seattle and Tacoma, and Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Georgia and South Carolina al-ready have taken a step toward port cooperation, with a bi-state initiative to oversee private development of a terminal on land Georgia owns in Jasper County, S.C., 12 miles downstream from the Port of Savannah. But that agreement is separate from the states' port authorities, which remain separate and competitive.

In a phone conversation, Brinson said there are probably a hundred legal and operational arguments why the port authorities shouldn't merge. But he said there also are compelling reasons for ports to consider new governance models that address their biggest future problems - space, capital and intermodal connectivity.

Brinson said South Carolina's port authority is well-managed, but it faces an apparently intractable problem: The port has virtually no room to expand after it completes a terminal being built at the former Charleston Navy Base. Another potential brake on expansion is that local support for the Port of Charleston isn't what it used to be. Many residents now see the port as producing more truck traffic than economic benefit.

Savannah, serving essentially the same market, is gaining market share and has ample room for expansion. Consequently, Georgia would be dealing from a position of strength in any merger negotiations. So why should South Carolina have any incentive to consider a port merger? The answer, as Stern noted, is that the primary role of port authorities has shifted from accommodating waterborne commerce to supporting economic development in the state and region. That's an important change.

A manufacturer in Greenville, S.C., doesn't care whether his cargo moves through Savannah or Charleston, as long as it's handled efficiently and the intermodal service is good. South Carolina companies - and the state's economy - would benefit more from an efficient terminal on the Savannah River than from one in Charleston that can't be built.

"Ports produce nothing. Railroads produce nothing. Trucking lines produce nothing," Brinson said. "They provide a value-added service for those who do produce goods. Where the ports are located is less important than their availability. We often lose sight of that."

Availability of port capacity could become an increasing problem as cargo volume continues to rise, space for expansion becomes more limited, and competition for capital becomes more intense. Though defined by political subdivisions, today's port system generally works well. Fifty years from now, it may not.

That's why unconventional ideas such as Stern's deserve to be discussed and debated. "Creative thinking is good," Brinson said, "and we ought to be thinking about where we want to be 50 years from now."