Already consistently shattering activity records at North America’s busiest single container facility, the Port of Savannah is undergoing multibillion-dollar expansion and channel deepening that should ensure sustained gains for the port and its users.

Encompassing 1,200 acres, the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is poised to see continuing gains in activity at what is billed as North America’s busiest single containerized cargo facility.
Encompassing 1,200 acres, the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is poised to see continuing gains in activity at what is billed as North America’s busiest single containerized cargo facility.

It’s little wonder Griff Lynch, who in July 2016 was elevated to executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority from chief commercial officer, always seems so upbeat – as he once again was in a recent interview with AJOT.

“We have been on fire for really 2 1/2 years now, and we haven’t looked back, and that’s been great,” he told AJOT. “It’s just amazing to me to see the kind of growth we’ve sustained.”

In the first six months of the GPA’s current fiscal year, which began July 1, four months saw double-digit year-over-year upsurges in container volume moving through the Port of Savannah, Lynch noted.

Calendar 2018 saw 4.4 million 20-foot-equivalent container units move through Savannah’s Garden City Terminal, with December marking the 26th consecutive month of year-over-year increases in TEU count.

“That’s stunning, just incredible stuff,” Lynch said. “We’re hitting numbers we didn’t think were actually possible. I really am so excited about where we’re going and what we’re doing and the great team we have here. I am blessed. We are blessed.”

Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, enthusiastically anticipates sustained growth at the Port of Savannah.
Griff Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, enthusiastically anticipates sustained growth at the Port of Savannah.

Lynch attributed the dynamic gains not just to overall economic strength, confident U.S. consumers and late-year efforts of importers to bring in goods ahead of tariff impositions but also to the distinct emergence of Savannah as a preferred gateway.

“The GPA for a long time has been trying to prove that they’re one of the big boys,” he said. “I think the message now is that we know we’re in the class of the big guys and the momentum that we have is overwhelming.

“It’s like a black hole,” he continued. “The volume started coming here and it started getting sucked in and there’s no stopping it. This is all about momentum. When the economy is strong, I think the GPA is able to take much greater advantage of it.”

Heading the list of advantages are Savannah’s location at the doorstep of burgeoning U.S. Southeast markets and the proliferative global ocean carrier options the port offers, including high numbers of first and last U.S. calls, as well as the availability of tens of millions of square feet of warehouse space in the region. Also, the port has consistently enhanced terminal efficiencies, such as reducing truck turn times by a full minute over the past year.

Further advantages are in the works at the Port of Savannah, which is in the midst of a 10-year, $2.5 billion expansion that aims to increase Garden City’s annual throughput capacity to 8 million TEUs from its current 5.5 million TEUs, including through boosting the number of ship-to-shore cranes at the 1,200-acre facility to 42 from 30.

Capabilities for getting cargo in and out of the terminal are increasing as well. While Savannah already is receiving calls from boxships carrying 14,000 TEUs, still larger container vessels requiring as many as 50 feet of draft should be able to be accommodated after completion by the end of 2021 of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. GPA officials are looking to completion a year earlier of the consolidated Mason Mega Rail Terminal, to double the Port of Savannah’s annual rail capacity to 1 million containers, making it the busiest rail facility on a North American port terminal.

“But there is something else that’s much greater here,” Lynch said. “When you look at the Georgia ports and the success we have had, it is not the port making it happen. It’s our customers making it happen, and the port stepping up to the plate to service the customer, and that’s what we’ve always tried to do.

“Going back to the mid to late ’90s, you had the big box retailers saying, ‘Hey, why not Savannah?’” he said. “Georgia Ports pushed it and the state pushed it, and companies like The Home Depot planted their flag, and that was really what got us started.

“Now, we have a different thing happening,” Lynch continued. “You still have the stores, the bricks and mortar, but you have something else – the e-commerce effect. That takes a totally different type of operation – the common phrase now is the fulfillment center.”

Whereas warehousing outside Port of Savannah gates has grown significantly over a period of decades, the area’s first true e-commerce fulfillment center is on schedule to open this spring when online furniture and home goods retailer Wayfair Inc. takes the wraps off a 1 million-square-foot facility just 8 miles from Garden City Terminals berths.

“I’m really excited about that,” Lynch said, “because that’s the first one, I think, of others to follow. What’s really neat is that first wave lasted 20 years, and that was great and we’re still building on that, but now you have this other massive wave that’s coming, and I think Wayfair is really just the first one. I see this potentially building and really not just becoming a little splash but a tidal wave effect.

“We’ve got to get ready for that,” he added. “And that’s why we’re so focused on ensuring we grow our capacity in a way that most dream about.”

Not only is containerized cargo activity flourishing at the Garden City Terminal, but breakbulk and vehicle volumes are seeing double-digit growth at the Port of Savannah’s Ocean Terminal. Lynch said this month’s addition of General Motors imports should bring “a dramatic increase” in automobiles coming into the Ocean Terminal, which already is seeing strong volumes of petrochemical resins arriving in railcars in bulk, being bagged and stuffed into containers for export through Garden City.

“The symbiotic relationship of Ocean Terminal supporting the Garden City Terminal is beautiful to see,” Lynch said.

“This is a dream for a terminal operator to have all the terminals kind of feeding each other.”