Charlie Harper: Georgia Ports’ Tune Is A Broken Record

Charlie Harper

Friday, September 28th, 2018

Last week the Georgia Ports Authority held its annual State of the Ports briefing in Savannah.  It’s an annual banquet that fills the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center to capacity with the state’s elected officials and business leaders.  The program is similar each year and can usually be subtitled “broken record”.  Georgia’s ports have become so accustomed to record breaking growth that the feats required to sustain the pace have begun to look routine.

The metrics usually used to describe the growth are those of volume and space.  For container traffic - the shipping containers that come in on ships and leave the port on a truck or train – the unit of measurement is TEUs.  That stands for “twenty-foot equivalent unit”. 

Last year the port saw a record 4.2 million TEUs through its gates.  That’s an 8.4% increase over the prior year, and continuing a pace of growth in or above the 7% annual growth rate.  While 7% doesn’t sound extreme, this is the rate that compounds into double every decade.   Because major infrastructure projects often require a long planning horizon and additional time to permit and construct, it’s important to understand the scale of numbers we’re talking about here and the impact on Georgia’s economy and infrastructure.

The current capacity of the Port of Savannah is 5.5 Million TEUs.  At a 7% annual growth rate, the Port would hit this capacity in just four years.  With the ports driving many of the economic development projects throughout the state – especially the ones outside of metro Atlanta – it’s hard to imagine that state leaders want to see the port divert traffic and the jobs generated to other ports in other states.

That’s not going to happen.  The Ports Authority continues to find ways to squeeze additional capacity out of the existing footprint while making strategic incremental expansions.  This brings us to this year’s headline.  The Port of Savannah will be embarking on yet another ten-year plan to reinvest $2.5 Billion into the facilities to increase capacity to 8 Million TEUs.

The plan brings to focus the key measurement that has been the success of the port.  While the dollars generated come from volume and the capital invested is in both space and equipment, the value to the Port’s customers is time. 

Much of the focus on the expansion has been on the dredging of the harbor to accommodate larger ships.  That represents increased efficiency as more TEU’s can be turned per ship docking.  The port also continues to reinvest in rail capacity, giving the port the ability to get containers on to trains quicker.  The establishment of “inland ports” with improved direct rail service further gets goods from the ship to the consumer faster. 

A similar focus has been placed on the alignment and capacity of the gates used by trucks, increasing the efficiency of ingress and egress.  Trucks now have options for direct access to either I-16 or I-95 to get them on their way faster.

While Georgia customers of the port will benefit from the faster operations, the Port is indeed one of national significance.  The Port of Savannah currently handles 8.5% of all of America’s containerized cargo and accounts for 10% of all exports.  Trade in Savannah is a two-way street.

To continue the growth, the goal is to cut the time of goods from ship to customer again, making Savannah the preferred port for customers in Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati.  Every hour that can be cut along the way opens up Savannah as a port to more customers further inland.

And finally, the Ports Authority may help Georgia leaders put to rest a controversy over the name of the bridge that spans the Savannah River.  While never officially named by GDOT, the “new” Talmadge Bridge has seen proposals to be named after Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low. 

It turns out that calling it the Low Bridge is fitting.  It’s not tall enough to allow the largest of vessels to call on the port once the ship channel is fully dredged.  It must be replaced soon with a new bridge or tunnel, one that will likely have a new name.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation