Mason Mega Rail Terminal Mason Mega Rail Terminal is due to be fully operational in 2020. Image: Stephen B. Morton

With strong year-on-year volume growth continuing into 2019, Georgia Ports Authority is pushing ahead with investment and expansion plans to support future container increases, as AJ Keyes discovers.

The Port of Savannah has been one of the most, if not the most, successful container ports in recent years in North America, based on year-on-year annual growth. Recent increases between 2012 and 2018 have seen average growth of 6.7% per annum, as the port’s throughput rose from just under 2.95 million TEU to more than 4.35 million TEU over this period.

To further facilitate future container throughput demand growth, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) has several infrastructure initiatives for shipping and inland transportation at
existing and new facilities.

In his annual state of the port address in September 2019 GPA executive director, Griff Lynch, confirmed that the $200 million Mason Mega Rail Terminal at the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is on schedule to see its first phase of operations in six months.

This new development is part of a 10-year $2.5 billion expansion that is planning to double the current annual throughput of 5.5 million TEU to 11 million TEU per annum, by 2035.

In the address Lynch acknowledged that “the market has clearly chosen the Port of Savannah as the South-eastern hub for containerised trade,” before adding, “To fulfil the growing responsibility placed on our deepwater terminals, as have developed a plan to double capacity.”

Phase two of the Mason Mega Rail Terminal is due to be operational by the end of 2020 and will then offer an annual life capacity of 2 million TEU per annum, reflective of double the port’s current handling capabilities.

To emphasise the importance of intermodal rail in Savannah, and reflecting a similar objective noted at the Port of Virginia, GPA has also confirmed that it is now regularly moving
containers from the ship berthed at the Garden City Terminal to a departing intermodal rail service in 24 hours, which Lynch confirmed was “two-and-a-half time faster than previous schedules” offered to cargo shippers and owners.

In operating terms, this means that Chicago is now within reach from the Port of Savannah in 67 hours, or less than three days. Dean Davison, Technical Director for WSP’s Maritime Advisory Group in London confirmed that “this speed of service is the level of operating benchmark that beneficial cargo owners need to see, but have delivered to them on a regular, consistent basis,” before adding that cost also remains a crucial factor to supplement efficient service levels.

The continued investment in intermodal rail capacity at Savannah is certainly justified. Currently, around 20% of all containers entering / leaving the port utilise intermodal rail and
although Lynch feels this total will not surpass 25%, it is still of a growing port throughput. In the January to July 2019 period, for example, Savannah handled over 387,000 TEU and rail activity has seen growth during the past three years of 35%.

Investment is also to continue at Garden City Terminal as GPA seeks to maximise capacity potential at the existing 1,200-acre facility. A further six ship-to-shore container cranes are being added during 2020, to bring the total to 36, while an initiative to realign berthing space at the terminal’s downriver end will facilitate berthing for more ships in the 14,000 TEU size range.

This is all occurring as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the final phase of the $1 billion Savannah Harbor Expansion Project that deepens the Savannah River to 47ft at mean low water.

Moving forward, there are other initiatives being undertaken by GPA to support its container activities beyond the 1,200-acre Garden City Terminal. There are known plans to develop a facility on Hutchison Island, a 200-acrs site across the Savannah River that could offer a capacity of 2.5 million TEU per annum when fully developed.

As Savannah continues to target the Mid-America Arc of Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus, the greater its need for efficient, competitive intermodal rail services becomes. It also means that if Chicago and Columbus are the main target focal points, the port’s true competitors will even more primarily become the San Pedro ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


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