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More growth for Savannah ports
Georgia Ports
Renovations to Berth 1 at Garden City terminal are nearing completion. The project will give Savannah four berths for ships carrying 16,000-plus TEUs and three additional berths. Photo provided

As supply chain tangles get worked out across the globe, the port of Savannah’s already booming business may get another boost.

Stacy Watson, general manager of economic and industrial development for the Georgia Ports Authority, told the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce’s Progress Through People luncheon that more business — and more changes — are coming to the Savannah ports.

For calendar year 2022, the ports handled 5.9 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units), a 5% increase from 2021.

“Now that the effects of the pandemic have started to subside, we have seen retailers return to normal supply chains,” Watson said. “We think, with your help and help of local communities, what we’ve built over the years is going to be that preferred gateway for freight.”

Savannah is third busiest container port in the U.S., trailing only Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey.

“We’re looking at expanding our facilities,” Watson said.

Watson pointed out the GPA has spent $1.7 billion on expanding on the Savannah port in the last decade. Over the next 12 years, it will invest $4.5 billion in improvements.

“We walk the walk on our expansion plans,” he said.

Among those are turning Ocean terminal into an all-container facility. Currently, it handles what is known as breakbulk and roll-on/roll-off cargo, such as vehicles and construction equipment headed overseas.

Ocean terminal is right under the Talmadge Bridge spanning the Savannah River and it will close for the improvements. It is expected to reopen in mid 2024 with an annual capacity of 1.5 million TEUs.

The ports also have a straightened a bend at Garden City terminal’s container berth 1 that will allow another big ship to dock. Straightening that bend between berths 1 and 2 is expected to allow the port to serve four 16,000-TEU vessels and three other ships simultaneously. That is projected to bring in another 1.5 million TEUs per year.

“We are spending on land and equipment,” Watson said. “We will be big ship ready on all nine of our container berths. We couldn’t fit big ships on that berth. They would stick out into the river. It is a big deal.”

The Garden City terminal is bringing in nearly 5.8 million TEUs a year, Watson said, and it has the capacity of handling 7.8 million TEUs annually.

Savannah faces competition from two other nearby ports, one just to the north in Charleston, S.C., and one just to the south in Jacksonville, Fla.

“Garden City is the jewel in the crown,” he said. “There is no other facility like it in the United States.”

The Georgia Ports also are expanding their facility in Brunswick and moving all their breakbulk and roll-on/roll-off operations, known as Ro-Ro, there. The GPA is adding to their holdings at Colonels Island, a 1,700-acre automobile handling area, to enable to accommodate more than 1.2 million vehicles per year. That would make it the No. 2 port for vehicles, behind only Baltimore.

The GPA also has inland ports at Bainbridge, one near Chatsworth in the far northwest reaches of the state and is planning another near Gainesville, to be built in the next two to three years. The ports also are looking at another in west Georgia.

As ships dock in Savannah and Brunswick, Watson pointed out those ships’ owners also want their vessels leaving port with close to full holds. Georgia is a leading exporter because of its pine trees and chickens and other natural resources.

“Ocean carriers want loaded ships going back,” Watson said. “Trees, kaolin, cotton are chicken are great for our business.”

It’s also among the top 30 container ports in the world, sitting at No. 28, and aims at moving to No. 25 this year.

“We are a world-class port in your backyard,” Watson said. “We are emphasizing we are a major player in the world.”

The Savannah ports are moving between 15,000 and 16,000 trucks a day through its gates, Watson said, the opening of the Mason mega rail facility is cutting down on that number. The 85-acre facility is the largest of its kind for a North American port terminal and once it is fully completed, it will double the port’s rail capacity to 2 million TEUs a year.

“We are cutting down on truck traffic and adding to our productivity,” Watson said.

The expanded rail facility is anticipated to handle 30% of the port’s container business in the future and help it compete with West Coast freight.

The Savannah port’s location already is an advantage, Watson said, with Interstate 16 and Interstate 95 just a few miles from the docks.

“There are so many things working together to make Savannah the preferred gateway for international trade,” Watson said.

To help it keep delivering, the ports are expanding Garden City terminal west, turning 90 acres into more room for containers. Also close to completion is a 325,000 square foot cross dock facility and adding four new ship-toshore cranes, at a cost of $20 million each.

“We are adding to yard capacity and to berth capacity,” Watson said. “We want to move more freight through our facilities in a shorter period of time, have room to build and room to grow. If we wait to expand our facilities, then we have waited too late.”

The next big issue from the ports likely will be the Talmadge Bridge, Watson said. Deepening of the harbor from 42 to 47 feet was completed last year, allowing for bigger ships to come in. But there is 185 feet of air draft from the river at high tide to the bridge, and Watson said 230 feet is needed.

State Transportation Board members have voted to go ahead with a plan to replace the cables on the bridge, opened in 1991, which would more easily raise the span and accommodate the ships entering the port.

It is expected that the bridge will remain open while the work is being done, with a price tag of up to $175 million.

The ports also have hired a sustainability director, and Watson added that the ports “love” hiring former members of the military.

The GPA has more than 1,500 acres at Garden City, and Watson said shippers do not want to move their business through a port that cannot grow. Across the state, the ports have created 550,000 jobs.

“We’ve proven over the years that we can grow our terminal,” he said. “A port is a very capital-intensive business. We are one of the most connected ports in the world. We are looking at ways we can diversify our cargo mix. No other port can deliver what we deliver.”

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