Mark Stewart and The State both have it right on the port of Charleston

Sometimes my readers spend time thinking about an issue at some length, and write me a note about it, and suggest I write about it on the blog — and I realize it will be days before I find time to think about it as much as they have (if I ever do), so… why not just post that reader’s thoughts? Sort of what I did with Kathryn’s contribution the other day… although I solicited that; this one just came in over the transom.

Anyway, here’s what Mark Stewart thought yesterday after reading an editorial on the subject in The State:


I read The State editorial this morning and thought that they came close but missed the boat on a few key points that might make for an interesting discussion on your blog.

After education, I believe that the Port of Charleston is perhaps the most important driver for economic prosperity across the state over the next fifty years.  I don’t normally grandstand on words like this, but I would argue that this issue may be one of EPIC proportions for South Carolina.  As happened with airline hubs, the emergence of a new shipping paradigm, the 50’ depth for super-container ships, will render obsolescent most of the remaining American ports as far as international trade goes.  Only a few of the ports will be viable in this new world.  This will lead to an even greater consolidation of economic activity.

The clear winners will be Los Angeles/Long Beach; New York/NJ; Norfolk, VA and Seattle.  But there will likely be a few others.  One of those might be a Southeastern port.  At present Savannah is the nation’s fourth-largest container port.  But it has a serious issue – it is 35 miles up a river which is now only 42 feet deep.  As Charleston did in the 1830’s when it drove the first Southern railroad to Augusta, The Port of Charleston has the opportunity now to seize back the economy of North Georgia from Savannah.  With a mega port, South Carolina would have the opportunity to become the hub of the Southeast and parts of the Midwest, funneling the economies of Atlanta and Charlotte along the way – and possibly also of Florida.

Georgia recognizes this need/opportunity in a way that South Carolina does not.  And yet, the Obama administration did not support Savannah’s request to begin the dredging process just as it did not provide funds to Charleston.  I believe this is because, unlike with New York and Norfolk, it is not clear who the winner will or should be in the Southeast.

That’s an opportunity.

But here is where The State’s editorial missed the entire picture.  Simply dredging Charleston is not the answer.  The real problem is on the land.  The thing that will hobble South Carolina’s future is the current lack of a robust port to railroad connection.   What is the point of dredging the harbor channels to a depth of 50 feet if the intermodel connections to move freight throughout the state and region efficiently are not there?  Now trucks clog I-26 and the local roadways in North Charleston and yet that city continues to fight more complete rail access to the Port terminals.  Worse still, the largest container terminal is on Mt. Pleasant and not even near a rail line.  So the issue really isn’t whether all politicians support the allocation of federal funds for dredging, it’s does the State of South Carolina support the creation of the landside infrastructure that would make the decision to dredge deeper a rational one?

The second point that the editorial touched on, but did not hammer home is this:  Sen. DeMint wants to promote legislation to have the Corps of Engineers be the party ultimately responsible for selecting which of America’s ports are dredged to the new trade standard.  What he seems not to understand is that this is not a scientific process of comparing variables.  It is instead a political knife-fight.  Yes, items such as channel depths, distances to open water, intermodel connections, and port terminals are critically important in advocating one’s position.  But what we are really talking about is the economic future of our state.  It’s not just that there will be winners and losers; it is that the winners will see compounding economic growth.  If Sen. DeMint does not understand that this is an issue of politics and that the U.S. Congress will be the ultimate battleground, then maybe national politics isn’t the right place for him.  We are not talking about philosophical viewpoints on the issue of earmarks; we are talking about representing the State of South Carolina in the most important battle for our long-term economic vitality and growth.  Senator DeMint is not showing any sort of leadership on this issue – in fact, it appears that he does not even realize what the issue is or that the fight is already on.

Do I agree with Mark on this (as I do on most thing, although not all)? Well, really, I agree with him and The State both. And I’ll add that, like The State, I’m a little more sympathetic than Mark seems to be toward Sen. DeMint’s desire to have the Corps decide. I think that’s a solid, Good Government 101 approach, and I hesitate to endorse Mark’s approach of saying we just need to squeeze all the political advantage for SC that we can out of this situation.

Again, I like The State‘s approach — concede the rightness of the senator’s original intent, but point out in no uncertain terms that such laudable original intents do NOT excuse his subsequent boneheaded behavior on the issue. Here’s what I mean:

Mr. DeMint says he’s focused on convincing the Congress to change the law so that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can use its own judgment to decide which projects to pursue, rather than abiding by the political dictates of the president and the Congress. It’s a wonderful idea, and not just because any honest evaluation of our nation’s ports needs would conclude that the Charleston harbor is a better investment of federal dollars than other ports whose deepening is being funded. But there is no realistic chance that it’s going to pass, which means that he has an obligation to work on Plans B and C as well. (If Mr. Wilson or any of our four new members of Congress have any plans for getting the port deepened absent a presidential request or a congressional earmark, they’re keeping them to themselves.)

Would their signatures have guaranteed that President Obama included the funding in his budget? No. In fact, Mr. DeMint might well be correct when he says that it would have made no difference. But he might not be, and the need is so great, and the cost to him and Mr. Wilson so low that it is simply incomprehensible that they would refuse to lend their names to a letter. Their refusal is akin to a mother whose child needs a life-saving operation she can’t afford refusing to sign a letter that her husband wrote to a charity asking for help simply because the charity’s director roots for a different ball team than she does.

One more thought, on one facet of this issue: At some point, South Carolina has to make a decision which it’s going to respect more: the desires of the rich Yankees who move to Charleston (and rich neoConfederates allied with them) and don’t want any nasty commerce spoiling the quaintness they paid for, or the desperate need of this whole state for economic development. Or maybe South Carolina has already decided, and decided wrong. In which case, it’s time to think again.

And finally, I want to thank Mark for getting me to address this important issue. And I addressed it in the best possible way, in the mind of an old assigning editor: I got somebody else to do all the work. Cindi Scoppe and many others who worked for me as reporters will recognize my modus operandi.

5 thoughts on “Mark Stewart and The State both have it right on the port of Charleston

  1. bud

    This issue seems more like an issue of national importance rather than an opportunity for South Carolina to improve it’s own economy. What I mean is this: Shouldn’t the ultimate decision on this matter be made in a national forum and not by who wins the “knife fight”? If the most cost efficient way to bring goods into the country is to make the necessary infrastructure improvements to Charleston then by all means let’s support that. But if it’s better to do so at Jacksonville, Savannah or Wilmington then I say let’s support them and get out of the way. I find it off-putting to allow decisons of national interest to be decided by local politicians. In the end won’t we all benefit if the most cost efficient approach is implemented? Maybe we won’t win this particular battle but in the long run we are all Americans and we may be in a better position in the long-run to win a different battle where we actually do have a natural advantage.

  2. Brad

    THIS doesn’t happen too often: Bud and Mark are disagreeing about something, and I agree with Bud rather than Mark.

    Absolutely, Bud. And that’s where DeMint is right, too. And if another port somewhere is clearly a better choice, then federal efforts and resources should go there, instead. (One of our standard questions in endorsement interviews of legislative candidates at The State — legislative in the sense of local council, state legislature or Congress — was meant to determine whether the candidate understood that the ENTIRE political entity needed to be considered first and foremost — meaning you think of the whole county’s interest rather than just your district if you’re on county council, and so on up to federal. This was to guard against narrow parochialism at the expense of society overall. And unfortunately, with some candidates, the principle was counterintuitive.)

    However, in a case in which all other things are equal, and ESPECIALLY when the SC option is the better choice for the country, I think it’s the proper role of SC representatives to advocate for the resources and effort coming HERE. And I think that’s what Graham et al. are trying to accomplish here, and it seems that DeMint and Wilson are being a bit… pharisaic on the point. And when there IS a legitimate case to be made for South Carolina, and one’s representative refuses to make it, then he’s not doing his duty.

    So, as I say, I (like Bud) reject Mark’s “knife fight” analogy. A properly governed civilization should not operate like a Hobbesian state of nature. We shouldn’t elect people to run up to Washington and grab all they can get for US at the expense of the rest of the country. But as I say again, when a legitimate case is there for South Carolina actually being the best option, they should advocate with all their might.

    It’s at that point that one starts to worry that Jim DeMint is more interested in posturing for the national power base he’s building than he is in playing the legitimate role of a senator from South Carolina. Yes, a case can be made for his position. But I think others are making a good case that he’s wrong on this one, given the specific circumstances.

    But wherever one stands, I again thank Mark for calling our attention to this issue of enormous importance to the economic future of our state — as well as to the nation.

  3. Mark Stewart

    Maybe a few comments will help assist here:

    As with all things, sometimes it’s easy to make the right call on an issue. That would be saying that Norfolk, VA will get its deep harbor (the Navy carriers are already there after all). Sometimes it’s easy to strike an alternative from the list. That would be like saying Jacksonville, FL and the St. Johns River isn’t physically a viable option for the new super ships. Then there are the closer calls. This is the race between Charleston and Savannah.

    Savannah is now the fourth largest container port in the country. It is ringed with massive distribution centers – warehouses – and is connected via multiple railroads to the Atlanta region. Georgia has built a powerhouse economy on this link. Charleston lags far behind. And yet Charleston is far and away the superior harbor, Bud’s “natural advantage”.

    So how did that happen? It happened because Georgia made it happen politically (and yes, it was a mugging in that the State of South Carolina didn’t see the future coming in the 1950s and 60s). Our neighbor, having always been the lesser seaport – and having been burned by Charleston’s economic grab in the pre-Civil War years – has worked harder and with more unity and vision to create a leading container port by political force.

    Economic development is all about pragmatism and vision mixing in equal proportions.

    If it were a situation where Charleston was clearly not a realistic option for the future and our legislators pushed the nation to fund expensive improvements anyway, then I would also side with Brad and Bud. It is not. This is a situation where Charleston and South Carolina should prevail – and yet politically Savannah remains in the lead at this point in time. My “knife fight” comment may be a bit colorful, but there are times when pure politics makes the difference. This is one of those situations.

    This is a national issue; which is why it will be resolved by the U.S. Congress. There are no metrics that would enable the Corps of Engineers to determine, between the close calls, which ports should be deepened. Once the science has weighed in and found different options to be differently abled but realistically possible, then the process becomes one of political negotiation. That’s were Georgia has trumped South Carolina. It’s in the process of trying to do it again. Not everyone can win at this. In fact, only a very few ports will advance. However, this time it’s clear some South Carolina politicians are paying attention. My point is that this is not good enough. We need them all to be working to make this happen (as they appear to be in Georgia). And yes, if DeMint (and Wilson who seems also not to grasp the situation) is not under the impression that he needs to lead on this and bring it home, then he is not fit to serve as a senator representing South Carolina. We elect our representatives in Washington to look out for our interests as they go about the nation’s business. This is not against good governance principles – not in my book.

  4. martin

    From when I first heard about this in the late summer, I didn’t understand why this was not the premier gubernatorial issue.

    I surely did not understand why it was not the premier senatorial issue. Good grief, the Green Party guy or even Alvin Greene could have handled this better than DeMint who is absolutely crippled by pathological- PATHOLOGICAL – ideological rigidity.

    I don’t see this as JUST a national issue to be decided by the decree, like the BRAC. Obviously, to me, more than one port on the east coast is needed to make rail and road transportation easily accessible to various locations toward the midwest. We need to make sure we have what we need to be one of those states. Read the P&C about Keith Summey’s railroad wars, which Nikki got herself involved in this week.

    Another thing that has come up which is related to this is that we have been sitting on our butts and not going after the major distribution centers for big companies the way Georgia has. This has made us less necessary to shipping companies. Charleston and Georgetown have both lost business.

    Makes me wonder what all this time and effort and agreements with GA about the Jasper Port was REALLY about. Knowing Sanford much better now than we did when that got started, there has to be a hidden reason (and that is now totally dead since the SPA letter to Georgia of the weekend), why all that emphasis when we have allowed Charleston AND Georgetown to deteriorate so badly?

    I sure would love to hear what Fritz Hollings has to say about this.

  5. Steve Gordy

    My two cents worth: Charleston is closer to the Northeast than are Jacksonville or Savannah; it’s also closer to any place in the Midwest north of Louisville and east of St. Louis. However, I don’t think the Corps of Engineers is the right body to decide which harbors to deepen; their job is to do technical feasibility determinations and make cost estimates. Messrs. DeMint and Wilson should commit an unnatural act for politicians: keep their mouths shut if they can’t help.


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