Overflow lots set up by large retailers this month as temporary staging areas for imported containers have helped bring down congestion levels at the Port of Savannah, and Georgia officials expect further efficiency gains with this week’s opening of two more port-sponsored pop-up sites.
The Georgia Ports Authority, in partnership with the Norfolk Southern, will start accepting loaded containers on Monday at the freight railroad’s nearby Dillard Yard and later this week will begin routing shipping units to a general aviation airport in Statesboro, located about 60 miles west of Savannah, Chief Operating Officer Ed McCarthy told FreightWaves.
Moving containers to off-port properties is part of the recently announced South Atlantic Supply Chain Relief Program designed to reclaim space at the Garden City Terminal, where container crowding is making it difficult for vessels to unload and for stacking equipment and trucks to maneuver. In October, Savannah handled an all-time record of 504,350 twenty-foot equivalent units for a single month, an increase of 8.7% over October 2020. The volume surpassed the GPA’s previous record of 498,000 TEUs set in March. For fiscal year 2021 ended June 30, container volumes increased by 20% over last year.
Port officials began testing the Dillard Yard and Statesboro locations last week after renting top loaders for stacking and truck transfers, installing computer lines in order to track containers entering the gate with radio frequency identification, and laying extra pavement at the rail facility, McCarthy said.
Four or five more pop-up container facilities are scheduled to open around Georgia by mid-December and the port authority is talking with freight railroad CSX about an auxiliary storage site in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the COO said in an interview.
The sites are mini-versions of inland ports where containers are brought to strategically located sites by intermodal rail, shortening the distance trucks have to travel to collect imports or drop off exports and reducing traffic in and around busy seaports. The concept essentially brings the seaport closer to manufacturing, agriculture and population centers.
The GPA currently operates a large inland intermodal rail terminal in Murray County, Georgia, as well as an inland dry bulk facility. Construction on a second inland rail link for containerized cargo in northeast Georgia is scheduled to begin in April and be completed by mid- to late 2024, spokesman Robert Morris said. South Carolina also operates two inland ports, Virginia has one in the northwestern part of the state.
The Port of Long Beach in California recently launched an effort to quickly flow cargo to Utah for distribution by converting truck traffic to rail. This year it also activated 130 acres of vacant land, including at Pier S, and repurposed it for the temporary storage of containers.
Several users of the Port of Savannah this month have opened pop-up yards of their own where they can directly flow import containers and retrieve them when space opens at one of their distribution centers. By keeping cargo on the docks for extended periods, retailers contributed to a doubling in dwell times from a year ago. Each of the private spillover yards can accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 containers.
“We’re starting to see some of our customer base do their own pop-ups. They’re contracting with some folks who have capabilities in the Savannah region and … taking their long-term destiny in their own hands,” McCarthy said in an interview.
The Rocky Mount intermodal facility being discussed with CSX will probably be used as an alternative storage location for empty containers. It could be running by early December, the COO said. Whether containers are diverted from other locations or whether empties are loaded up in Savannah and sent there remains to be determined.
The Biden administration, which is focused on alleviating a nationwide supply chain crisis that is creating product shortages and contributing to inflation, helped fund the GPA’s emergency storage yards by reallocating $8 million in federal funds. Additional flexibility recently granted by the Department of Transportation allows port authorities to redirect cost savings from previous projects funded by port infrastructure grants toward mitigating truck, rail and terminal delays that are preventing the swift evacuation of containers from ports.
White House port envoy John Porcari, the liaison between industry and the White House Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force, said the government is looking to create more inland ports.
“We’re encouraging other ports to do the same [thing as Savannah.] I think you’ll see a generation of projects in the short term around the country that will help maximize the existing on-dock capacity through interior pop-up sites,” Porcari said on Bloomberg’s “Odd Lots” podcast last week.
“The fundamental issue is that the docks themselves are such valuable pieces of real estate that you don’t want the containers dwelling there a second longer than you have to. You want to get them to the interior or back on ships to their target markets overseas,” he said.
Improvements in rail handling, a dip in import volumes in line with seasonal patterns and the customer pop-up yards have combined to improve cargo flow and reduce the number of ships waiting for a berth at the Port of Savannah, McCarthy said.
The port authority released an operations update last week showing the average dwell time for a container moving by rail after vessel unloading is two days, and that the average resting time within the terminal for import and export containers is about eight days, down from 11 and 10 days, respectively. The backlog of empty containers remains a problem, with boxes lingering an average of 17.8 days.
The improved performance is helping personnel work vessels faster and reduce Savannah’s cargo backlog. The number of ships at anchor in the Atlantic Ocean declined to 15 as of Monday morning from 22 two weeks ago, Morris said. There were 24 container vessels at anchor in mid-October. Total containers on the terminal also declined 13% and are down 16% from the peak of 85,000, according to the update.
McCarthy said there are about 225,000 TEUs currently on the water, a 10% to 12% reduction from early November that indicates “we are over the hump of the peak season.”
Last week, ocean carrier CMA CGM said its Liberty Bridge service from northern Europe to the U.S. East Coast would temporarily skip Savannah due to the congestion. According to the revised schedule, seven stops between late December and early February will be omitted. Shippers can send Savannah cargo to the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, until then, it said.
The GPA also noted that providers have increased the supply of chassis, the wheeled frames on which containers rest when pulled by truck, and are increasingly able to repair more chassis to help meet demand for cargo deliveries.
The Port of Savannah increased its near-dock rail capacity by 30% with the commissioning two weeks ago of a second set of nine tracks at the Mason Mega Rail Terminal. The port moved 550,000 containers by rail last year and now has more than 2 million TEUs of capacity with an eye toward future growth. The ability to discharge cargo from a vessel and ship it out by train in less than two days is best in class for the U.S., McCarthy noted.
A huge new container yard will come online in phases starting in December and culminate with about 820,000 TEUs of additional capacity by March. The project includes rubber-tired gantry cranes for sorting, stacking and transferring containers.
Construction of another berth is underway and scheduled to be complete 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. It has already allowed vessels with deeper drafts to enter the port, McCarthy said. The deepening translates to about 200 extra loaded containers per foot and a total of 1,000 per vessel when the project is finished.
(Correction: The Dillard Yard was incorrectly referred to as the Dillon Yard in an earlier version of this story.)