Savannah port to handle more freight, but how will roads, rails handle extra load?

By David Pendered

One aspect of the Savannah Harbor deepening project has received scant attention: How is all that additional freight to get in and out of the port? New York’s answer to its growing volume is six-hour traffic jams at its terminals.

Dock workers in Savannah handled more than 333,000 containers in March. Credit: GPA

Dock workers in Savannah handled more than 333,000 containers in March. Credit: GPA

Curtis Foltz doesn’t expect Savannah to follow New York’s lead. But Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, sees road and rail access to the port as an important issue the state and federal governments can’t afford to ignore.

“The key is to continue to build on capacity,” Foltz said. “We have to build on capacity in the port, build on working with the railroads to increase velocity, build on road capacity.”

Capacity expansion isn’t cheap.

New York faces a $1.5 billion price tag for its newly adopted 10-year plan to improve seaports, plus another $7.9 billion to upgrade tunnels, bridges, and terminals – with a significant portion of the TB&T work intended to improve access to and from port terminals. The entire project is tagged at $27.6 billion for upgrades to the seaports, airports, rapid transit, TB&Ts, and World Trade Center, which come under the umbrella of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

In a totally separate project, the New York legislature this spring is taking another look at the $15 billion Move NY plan to ease congestion citywide. Trucks are part of the problem, because truckers bound for New Jersey cut through lower Manhattan to avoid $70 tolls imposed by Staten Island, according to a story in crainsnewyork.com.

Cranes lift containers off ships and set them on trailers which will take them to a holding area. Credit: GPA

Cranes lift containers off ships and set them on trailers which will take them to a holding area. Credit: GPA

Georgia faces similar expenditures.

The $1 billion-a-year transportation funding plan lawmakers delivered to Gov. Nathan Deal is intended mainly to maintain the existing highway system, not build new highways. Deal has yet to sign the bill.

House Bill 170 doesn’t address the $6 billion needed to expand the capacity of railroads, which are already overburdened to and from the Port of Savannah, according to a consultant’s report accepted in 2012 by the board of Georgia’s Department of Transportation.

Rail clearly is expected to play a big role in getting freight in and out of the Savannah port. Two major carriers, Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp. currently serve Georgia’s ports in Savannah and Brunswick.

“As with any major infrastructure issue in the U.S. today, I don’t think rail is being maintained to the level it needs,” Foltz said. “We need to see improvements on the rail and road side of the North American transportation system. I’m not in a position to say if roadways or railways are in worse shape. But we need to make that investment.”

Nonetheless, Foltz is fairly comfortable with the port’s capacity to handle heavy volume now and in the near-term future. This includes the roads and rails used to move freight to and from the wharves.

Containers loaded with consumer goods are stored at the Savannah wharves until they are loaded onto tractor-trailers or railroad cars. Credit: GPA

Containers loaded with consumer goods are stored at the Savannah wharves until they are loaded onto tractor-trailers or railroad cars. Credit: GPA

The Savannah port handled more containers in March than ever before. This high a number of containers was not forecast until 2017, he said.

The port surpassed its previous record by more than 21,000 containers. It handled 333,058 containers in March; it handled 274,363 containers in October, according to port records.

“To see these volumes hit our port in a month that we wouldn’t expect record-setting volume, with very little advance notice from ocean carriers and our clients, speaks volumes about the port structure we have, and how nimble and responsive we can be,” Foltz said.

“It was a volume we were not anticipating until 2017, 2018, and we were still able to handle it,” Foltz said. “March was an outstanding month for us. It was a great test of our concept and what our capacities are. Everybody accomplished what we were expecting.”

These numbers weren’t expected until after the Panama Canal opens its expanded facilities and big boats pass through, enroute from Asia to the East Coast.

Containers are transferred to rail cars at the Savannah port's Chatham Rail Intermodal Facility. Credit: GPA

Containers are transferred to rail cars at the Savannah port’s Chatham Rail Intermodal Facility. Credit: GPA

The bigger canal could open as soon as December. The canal now serves about 14,000 ships a year and accommodates 10 percent of U.S. shipping, according to panamaguide.com.

Foltz said he expects shippers to continue using the Port of Savannah as global trade increases, especially in light of the port’s handling of record volume in March. Savannah is well positioned to be the southeastern hub for the rising amount of global trade.

“These are imports primarily out of Asia, and Savannah is the preferred gateway in the Southeast,“ Foltz said. “Particularly when importers are struggling at other ports to flawlessly flow goods and products, we’re the port of choice. Some of the West Coast challenges have supported our growth. But the broader driver is continued growth, continued demand coming from Asia wanting to get to the Southeast population.”

The Savannah port managed its busiest month in history in Ocdtober, when this photo was taken, until even more containers were handled in March. Credit: GPA

The Savannah port managed its busiest month in history in October, when this photo was taken, until even more containers were handled in March. Credit: GPA

 

Tractor trailers move many of the containers that are off-loaded from ships at the Savannah wharves. Credit: GPA

Tractor trailers move many of the containers that are off-loaded from ships at the Savannah wharves. Credit: GPA

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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