Mason Mega Rail project seeks to double rail capacity by 2020

Artist’s rendering of the planned Mason Mega Rail terminal at the Port of Savannah, Garden City Terminal, in Garden City, GA. The Georgia Ports Authority broke ground on the rail expansion in a ceremony Tuesday, March 27, 2018, at the Port of Savannah. The project will add 97,000 feet of track at Garden City Terminal. (Photo: Georgia Ports Authority/Stephen B. Morton)

The Georgia Rail System is impressive as it is consisting of over 5,000 route miles that run through most of the state’s 159 counties. It’s about to get a lot bigger. Georgia Ports Authority and other officials last week broke ground on the $127 million Mason Mega Rail Terminal. The project will increase the Port of Savannah’s rail lift capacity to 1 million containers per year, and open new markets that will span an arc of cities from Memphis, Tennessee, to St. Louis, and from Chicago to Cincinnati, port officials said in a press release. It doesn’t hurt that the Georgia Ports will soon support 439,000 jobs, according to a UGA study.

“Today is a great day for Georgia and the nation,” said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “Not only will this new intermodal facility take trucks off the road and bring our products to market with greater efficiency, but it will open a new corridor for American commerce to and from the Midwest.”

The Mega Rail groundbreaking is the latest in a series of Gov. Deal’s signature projects designed to make Georgia the transportation and logistics hub of North America – which include the recent announcement of 50 percent completion of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, a new inland terminal in Northwest Georgia, and a $10 billion statewide transportation improvement plan. 

“The Mason Mega Rail project will expand rail capacity by 100 percent while reducing impact on the local community and throughout the supply chain,” said Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch.

Theresa Atkins, Director of Industry Partnerships for Supply Chain & Logistics at Georgia Tech attended the groundbreaking ceremony. “It’s a really exciting development in support of the port’s forecast growth,” she tells FreightWaves by email.

“One of the interesting aspects of this project is that there are two Class 1 railroads at the port of Savannah—CSX and Norfolk Southern. They currently operate from two separate railyards (Mason Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) which serves Norfolk Southern, and Chatham Yard ICTF, serving CSX),” says Atkins. Atkins says she believes the railroads own the track, as well as operate the service. According to the GDOT website, the Norfolk Southern runs 1,930 miles of track through Georgia, while CSX runs 1,626.

The first half of 2018, work will focus on construction of two rail bridges with a total of seven tracks that will connect two existing intermodal container transfer facilities. GPA officials anticipate the new terminal will begin coming online by fall 2019, with project completion in the fall 2020. GPA estimates that the new intermodal terminal will take more than 200,000 trucks off the road annually.

“This project is a game changer,” said GPA Board Chairman Jimmy Allgood. “Our team estimates the Mason Mega Rail Terminal will slash rail time to the Midwest by a good 24 hours, and present a viable new option for many manufacturers, shippers and logistics professionals.” 

When the project is completed, Garden City Terminal will have 180,000 feet of rail, 18 working tracks and the capability of building 10,000-foot unit trains on terminal. The expansion will allow GPA to bring all rail switching onto the terminal, avoiding the use of nearly two dozen rail crossings — including those on state Highways 21 and 25 — for improved vehicle traffic flow.

The Mason Mega Rail expansion is funded in part by a $44 million U.S. Department of Transportation FASTLANE grant administered by the U.S. Maritime Administration. In 2017, the department changed the name of FASTLANE to the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program. The INFRA program provides dedicated, discretionary funding for projects that address critical issues facing our nation’s highways and bridges. INFRA grants will support the Administration’s commitment to fixing our nation’s decaying infrastructure by creating opportunities for all levels of government and the private sector to fund infrastructure, using innovative approaches to improve the necessary processes for building significant projects, and increasing accountability for the projects that are built. Congress authorized $850 million in funding for the program in fiscal year 2017.

Interestingly, just two days after the announcement, Congress tripled the amount going to a popular grant program, and the money—which is headed to U.S. ports for maintenance dredging and jetty work—is a record $1.4 billion, through the fiscal 2018 appropriations bills, according to the J.O.C.

Many other projects were not able to receive the funding requested in fiscal year 2017, but with the infusion of infrastructure funds, many important ports and other areas of intermodal freight are on the wish list. This includes projects to modernize Pier 4 at the Port of Tacoma, Washington, expand the Port Newark Container Terminal in New Jersey, and replace the Gerald Desmond Bridge near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

 Image of all projects funded by the FASTLANE grant with 2017 funds.
Image of all projects funded by the FASTLANE grant with 2017 funds.

“The maritime industry is a crucial component in the overall economic and environmental success of the country,” said Maritime Administrator Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby. “Investments in our nation’s port infrastructure improve the efficiency and intermodal capabilities of our nation’s ports; allowing the U.S. to remain competitive in the global market.”

 To serve the expanded rail yard, the GPA is also ordering eight rail-mounted gantry cranes. The RMGs will each span nine tracks for improved efficiency moving containers from trains to on-terminal jockey trucks. Lynch said the growing rail infrastructure complements Savannah’s role as a gateway port for container trade.

“The Port of Savannah has the cargo capacity to quickly load unit trains for expedited service to inland population centers,” Lynch said. “Over the past year alone, our average container moves per vessel has increased by 15 percent, and exchanges of 5,000 twenty-foot equivalent container units are now common.”

Garden City Terminal is already the South Atlantic region’s busiest intermodal gateway, handling 38 trains per week of import and export cargo. Once the Mason Mega Rail terminal is complete, the Port of Savannah will have a state-of-the-art facility, unique to the U.S. East Coast.

The new rail infrastructure is part of a comprehensive expansion plan that includes harbor deepening, the single largest ship-to-shore crane fleet in North America, 60 additional yard cranes and expanding truck gates. “Not only are we bolstering intermodal rail capacity, we are adding bandwidth across all points of interaction – from surface transportation to yard and dock transactions,” said GPA Chief Operating Officer Ed McCarthy.

Allgood noted with appreciation the GPA’s longstanding support from state leaders, including former Gov. Zell Miller, who died March 23 at age 86.

“In 1995, Gov. Miller was instrumental in attracting Savannah’s second major distribution center, The Home Depot,” Allgood said. “That helped to launch what became known as the Savannah Model, in which the port acts as a logistics hub serving a multi-state region.”

Since that time, the Port of Savannah has grown from the 12th busiest port in the nation to the fourth busiest, behind only L.A., Long Beach and New York-New Jersey.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.