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Nov 16, 1:54 PM EST

Georgia, South Carolina sign new agreement for shared port

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- A proposed $4.5 billion port terminal to be shared by Georgia and South Carolina came closer to reality Monday as the states' port officials signed a new deal for managing the project and voted to ask a federal agency for the permits required to start construction.

Governors of the neighboring states decided eight years ago to work together on developing the Jasper Ocean Terminal on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River. The plan calls for the states to jointly run a shipping terminal with space for up to 7 million cargo containers before growing business causes the ports of Savannah and Charleston to run out of room.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said the new agreement will help ensure "that we not only grow today but that we continue to grow for decades to come." And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley hailed the deal as "an incredible opportunity to strengthen our ports system."

After years of studying - and sometimes debating - whether the massive project was feasible, port officials from both states have now agreed to spend the coming years working toward designing and financing the shared terminal while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts the environmental studies required before construction can begin.

Paperwork asking the Corps' Charleston District to begin studies on the land construction should be submitted before Thanksgiving, said Doug Marchand, the project's executive adviser. A similar packet seeking permits to widen and deepen the shipping channel is expected to be sent to the agency's Savannah District in early December.

The terminal would be built in Jasper County, South Carolina, across the river from Savannah. Environmental studies could take eight years, with years of construction following. Consultants have said 2029 is the earliest they would expect to see completion of the project's first phase, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion.

The new joint project agreement calls for Georgia and South Carolina to each shoulder half the Jasper terminal's costs.

The states still need to decide how they would pay for it. Jeffrey Holt, a banker who specializes in financing for port expansions and other infrastructure projects, told the board overseeing the Jasper County terminal Monday that for every $1 billion borrowed, the states should expect to pay $50 million to $130 million each year to cover debt obligations.

"Really, the sheer numbers of this thing are staggering," said Holt, who suggested that port officials look for ways to reduce the price tag.

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