Savannah Port(s) In The Spotlight

Oh goodie, it’s another Savannah Port story…

We know, sometimes the sound of success can sound like a broken record. The Savannah port continues to grow, with a record 2015 now in the books. So reports the port via press release:

Over the last calendar year, the Port of Savannah moved an all-time high 3.73 million twenty-foot equivalent container units, an increase of 391,356 TEUs, or 11.7 percent compared to CY2014.

“The expansion was fueled in part by heightened demand in the U.S. Southeast, Savannah’s logistical advantages drawing new customers to Georgia, and cargo diverted from the West Coast,” said GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz.

Total tonnage across all terminals reached a record 31.48 million tons in CY2015, an increase of 1.09 million tons, or 3.6 percent. Container tonnage accounted for most of that growth, adding 991,031 tons (up 4 percent), for a total of 25.81 million tons. Bulk cargo added 60,705 tons (up 2.2 percent) to reach 2.86 million, while breakbulk cargo grew 1.7 percent, or 47,358 tons, to reach 2.79 million tons.

Let’s go back to that first graph. Savannah, while a diverse port, has become the preeminent container port of the US. Now the 4th largest container port, it still grew at 11.7%. While some of that traffic increase was due to the West Coast ports’ labor issues, Savannah has traditionally found that new customers gained during these times tend to stick around.

Let’s put it this way. If the port of Savannah continues to grow at this pace, it will double capacity within 7 years.

Read that again. Already the 4th largest container port in the country, the port could double capacity in 7 years.  This isn’t just another “Savannah’s doing great” post, even though they very much are.  Got that?  Let’s continue.

Savannah Port officials aren’t making that prediction, but they do expect that volume growth to occur in 10-12 years. At that time, the Port of Savannah will be at maximum capacity.

This is one of the reasons this bears watching. Much of Georgia has figured out that the Port of Savannah is key to economic development efforts, by giving them a link for current and future manufacturers to the rest of the world. I heard this at every corner of the state during a recent Georgia Transportation Alliance statewide tour.

That same opportunity also creates a need for action. Both at the port, and throughout Georgia’s transportation infrastructure.

Doubling the amount of freight coming through the port means double the containers moving in and out of the port. That’s a lot of additional trucks on the road, and/or a lot more rail cars moving down the tracks. That can mean additional capacity needed on Georgia’s freeways. That will mean needing to figure out how to move this freight around Metro Atlanta and its congestion for containers not destined for Atlanta. The freight plan rolled out by the Governor and GDOT includes dedicated truck lanes between Macon and McDonough on I-75 as a start. More freight management will be needed. Diverting as much freight as possible via rail and pipelines to lesson the need for additional roads will be key to maintaining the success of the ports without pushing Georgia’s roads beyond their limits.

But the port itself is at a decision point, and is looking to the next chapter. Quietly late last year, Georgia and South Carolina officials signed the paperwork to move forward on developing the “Jasper Terminal”, which will be on the SC side of the Savannah River and a bit closer to the open Atlantic waters from the current terminals at the Port of Savannah. The port will be jointly developed and owned by both Georgia and South Carolina. From the AJC:

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, S.C., 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.

Those familiar with the long process that it has been to only have begun dredging the Savannah River understand how long it can take to get a federal permit for these things.  Then there’s construction.  We’re likely a minimum of ten years, and probably closer to 15, before permits will have been issued and $4.5 billion in new infrastructure constructed to establish the new port.  That’s why getting this permitting started now is critical.

But the signal that even when Savannah reaches capacity in roughly a decade that freight traffic in Georgia will not stop or plateau.  Managing Georgia’s freight logistics is a full time policy obligation for those dealing with transportation or economic development.

We have a world class airport and world class ports.  We have to make sure the roads, rails, pipelines, and other pieces of Georgia’s logistics matrix are equally up to the world standards for all of Georgia to benefit, and to continue to maintain our personal mobility and quality of life.


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