Griffith V. “Griff” Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, can’t help but smile.
Since he succeeded Curtis J. Foltz at the GPA helm in July, Lynch has seen significant advancement of the endeavor to deepen Savannah Harbor, as well as the addition of more bigger container cranes, and he has launched an aggressive rail initiative to boost inland links of North America’s largest single container terminal.
And that’s just in Savannah. Expansion of vehicle-handling operations at GPA’s Port of Brunswick plus additional inland port capabilities bode to further heighten the Peach State’s cargo-moving prowess.
At the Port of Savannah, which ranks No. 4 among U.S. containerports, handling more than 3.7 million 20-foot-equivalent container units a year, GPA’s commitment to offer facilities that stay 20 percent ahead of the demand curve is poised for a big payoff as container carrier consolidations and alliances bring still-larger ships to gateway ports. “We think that’s only going to help us grow even more,” Lynch told the American Journal of Transportation, noting that the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is ready to accommodate 13,000- to 14,000-TEU containerships he believes are certain to be calling East Coast ports this year. “Our goal is to make sure we are prepared.”
Lynch, who joined GPA in 2011 as chief operating officer, said the Port of Savannah’s container activity for the fiscal year that began July 1 is already trending to be its second-highest ever, buoyed by rising consumer confidence, e-commerce growth, new warehouse and distribution facilities and a turnaround in exports.
But Lynch conceded that he had concerns in the first days of his executive directorship, what with the financial collapse of Top 10 container carrier Hanjin Shipping Co. and multiple severe storms.
Lynch’s first week in the captain’s chair also brought major good news, in the awarding of a $44 million Fixing America’s Surface Transportation grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The FAST grant is furnishing the seed money for the $140 million Mid-American Arc rail initiative that Lynch unveiled in September. That project, to improve on-dock rail capabilities and combine yards that currently are separately served by CSX and Norfolk Southern trains – and double annual on-terminal rail lift capacity to 1 million – should increase velocity in serving inland markets from Atlanta to Memphis to the Midwest. The rail undertaking is slated for completion by 2020, about the same time the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, backed by $266 million in state funding, is on target to be finished.
“Everything is tracking pretty well on schedule,” James McCurry Jr., GPA’s senior director of administration and government affairs, said of SHEP, for which study phases date back nearly 20 years.
The first portion of SHEP, to bring the entrance channel to a depth of 49 feet at low tide, from its present 44 feet, is about one-third done and is projected for completion by late 2018, according to McCurry. SHEP’s second phase, to take the inner harbor to 47 feet from 42 feet, is to begin in 2018 and take about three years to complete.
The deeper harbor should enhance the Port of Savannah’s ability at all times to efficiently and safely handle fully laden mega-containerships, including those transiting the Suez Canal and the newly expanded Panama Canal.
“It is the exporters who will benefit most,” McCurry said.
“We’ve got the shoreside infrastructure and connective road and rail infrastructure,” McCurry said, “so completion as soon as possible of SHEP is critically important, not just for Georgia but for the entire Southeastern United States.”
That shoreside infrastructure includes four new super-post-Panamax cranes, each with lift height of 152 feet, commissioned in mid-January, joining four similarly massive units already in place at the Garden City Terminal. The newest big units bring the total ship-to-shore crane contingent at Garden City to 26, the most of any U.S. container terminal. And four more super-post-Panamax cranes are slated to be added in 2018, to make the terminal able to handle as many as 1,000 container moves per hour.
Within GPA’s 1,200-acre Garden City facility, 30 additional electrified rubber-tire gantries have recently been added, bringing the total fleet of RTGs at the terminal to 146 units – more than all other U.S. containerports in the U.S. Southeast and Gulf regions combined, according to Lynch. Roadway connections include direct highway links opened last year between the Port of Savannah and Interstate 95 and I-16, with future plans for an I-516 connector right into the Garden City Terminal.
Clifford R. “Cliff” Pyron, GPA’s chief commercial officer, noted that the improved highway links combine with expanded terminal gate capabilities to facilitate swift truck moves.
Average turn time for a single truck move is between 31 and 33 minutes, Pyron said, while a double move, entailing dropoff and pickup, typically clocks in at 52 to 54 minutes, with drivers reporting as many as seven turns a day. The average of 9,500 truck transactions per day at the Garden City Terminal is by far the most of any U.S. container facility, he added.
That said, the new rail initiative, plus GPA’s expanding network of inland port facilities, should grow the Port of Savannah’s intermodal base while not generating additional truck traffic.
Indeed, much of the truck traffic is between the container terminal and the proliferation of industrial warehouse space in the Savannah area, with nearly 50 million square feet already in place and an additional 6 million square feet in the pipeline.
Beneficial cargo owners with significant distribution center presence in the Savannah area, and thus prominent users of the port, include such household names as Wal-Mart, Target, IKEA, Heineken, The Home Depot, Pier 1 Imports, Toys R Us, US Foods, Dollar Tree and Floor & Decor.
“The traction and the enthusiasm in the marketplace in our gateway is always very, very encouraging,” Pyron said. “It is just all coming together extremely well.”