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Port of Savannah ramps up container capacity as cargo delays ease

Officials pull forward development of 230 acres of container handling space, pop-up yards

The first phase of the Peak Capacity Project, which is adding container storage space, is scheduled to be completed by January. (Photo: Georgia Ports Authority)

Congestion at the Port of Savannah continued to improve last week, and an infusion of 1.6 million shipping units of yard capacity in the next six months should further enhance cargo flow, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.

The number of container vessels at anchor off the Atlantic coast port waiting for a berth fell to 13 as of Monday, down from 15 a week ago and 23 on Nov. 2, as temporary off-dock storage sites and customers clearing cargo more quickly freed space for new shipments to be offloaded. The length of time loaded import containers are lingering on port property for more than four weeks has dropped by 53% since September, Executive Director Griff Lynch said at a board meeting Monday.

Temporary “pop-up” yards established near manufacturing and distribution centers around the state by large retailers and the GPA in the past month are helping to relieve pressure on the main Garden City Terminal by reducing unnecessary storage time and delivering cargo closer to customers. 

The new facilities are part of the state’s South Atlantic Supply Chain Relief Program and complement the existing inland port strategy. When completed, the auxiliary yards will provide a half-million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of annual capacity. 

The port authority has already activated yards at a nearby Norfolk Southern rail terminal and at the CSX railroad’s Hulsey Yard in Atlanta, as well as the Statesboro airport and site in northwest Georgia. Containers are mostly being transported by rail, eliminating long truck trips to the port. The new Atlanta yard, for example, will avoid more than 500 roundtrip truck miles per box, with anticipated volumes of 1,200 containers per month. 

Chief Operating Officer Ed McCarthy previously told American Shipper that the GPA also hopes to open an overflow yard for empty containers at a CSX facility in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

The emergency storage yards are funded in part by $8 million in reallocated federal funds from savings on previous projects.

Import dwell times have decreased to an average 7.8 days from 7.9 days last Monday and more than 8.5 days early last month and in October, according to an operational dashboard on the port authority website. Exports are lingering 8.4 days compared to 9.2 days a week ago, but are up slightly from the week ending Nov. 23. Empty containers are dwelling 16 days compared to nearly 22 days in the prior period.

Lynch said officials are working to expedite development of 1.6 million TEUs of permanent staging space for containers in several areas around the giant terminal.

The first phase of the $34 million Peak Capacity Project will open space for 670,000 TEUs of annual capacity by the end of the year. An additional 155,000 TEUs of terminal capacity will come online in early March, followed by 850,000 TEUs of capacity by June. In total, the GPA purchased 230 acres of adjacent land for container handling space. The projects, which were approved in late September and originally expected to be completed in 2023, will increase capacity by 25% in six months.

Five new electric rubber-tired gantry cranes, used to stack, sort and transfer containers to trucks and rail cars, arrived in Savannah by vessel on Friday. At the meeting, the GPA board approved a $24.4 million investment for the purchase of nine additional yard cranes that will support the new operations.

The Port of Savannah handled more than 504,000 TEUs in October, the busiest month in its history.

The GPA has a reputation for investing heavily in new infrastructure — berths, cranes, truck gates, yard space, power plugs for refrigerated containers — well before expected demand, which resulted in some of the best container fluidity in the nation. But even Savannah was overwhelmed after the pandemic triggered a tsunami of imports that has choked ports across the nation, a situation exacerbated by fewer truck drivers showing up for work and stuffed warehouses.

“By expediting the projects needed to ensure the free flow of cargo, we’re addressing our customers’ concerns today, and working to re-establish our longtime practice of keeping capacity 20% above current demand,” Board Chairman Joel Wooten said in the announcement. 

The Port of Savannah is the fourth-largest container port in the U.S. – behind Los Angeles, Long Beach and New York-New Jersey – and the largest for containerized exports. 

The port last month increased on-dock rail capacity with the opening of nine new tracks, is building a 25-acre chassis yard that is scheduled for completion in March, and has started work on a 10th berth for large container vessels. Eight new ship-to-shore cranes are scheduled to arrive in 2023.

Meanwhile, the federal dredging project to deepen the Savannah River to 47 feet (54 feet at high tide) is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2022. Larger, more fully loaded vessels are already taking advantage of the extra draft. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]