This article brought to you courtesy of NEXT Trucking
Along with serving bigger ships and longer trains, the port of Savannah is making truck fluidity a priority, according to a local intermodal executive.
Year-to-date inbound volumes into Savannah are up close to 10% through August, making it the fastest growing import gateway into the U.S.
Savannah is expanding along the water to handle larger vessels and is over the half-way mark on its $220 million intermodal rail project, the Mason Mega terminal. Along with those moves, Savannah is adding another eight lanes to its truck gates, bringing the total number of gates to 56.
Jeff Banton, president of Atlantic Intermodal Service (AIS), said the gates are important for keeping up with truck volumes. He said Savannah saw a record-breaking 12,000 gate moves in one day in August.
Construction of the Mason Mega Rail terminal has meant obstacles and detours for drivers in and around the port, particularly on Highway 25 where a new viaduct for road and rail traffic is being built. Despite the short-term pain, he said Savannah is “very trucker friendly.”
“You think about what type of coordination is needed to make that work, it just points to good leadership at the port,” Banton said.
The Garden City Terminal does not use a driver appointment system as do the major West Coast marine terminals. Instead, drivers receive a personal identification number (PIN) when a container is available and use that to enter the terminal.
The process is still fairly manual as it requires entry of container numbers into a website to retrieve a PIN. Banton said the system is satisfactory, and said there is no advantage in using an appointment system at Savannah due to the number of potential delays that can face a driver outside the gates.
“The appointment system does not work for trucking,” Banton said. “You can miss an appointment and it’s not like you can grab another appointment for that same day.”
Banton said the number of turns a port driver can make varies depending on the haul. The high concentration of distribution and warehousing near the port mean drivers servicing the local market can make up to five turns per day. Banton credits the low turn times at the Garden City Terminal, typically under one hour, for allowing most drivers to get at least two or three turns per day.
“Sitting in a port just takes away from a driver’s ability to make more money,” Banton said. “Kudos to Savannah for making the driving experience much more tolerable.”
A typical length of haul might be 500 miles roundtrip, with much of the truck freight heading west on Interstate 16 or north or south on I-95.
He said container drays to destinations south of Atlanta and back are very “doable” from Savannah. But the traffic in metropolitan Atlanta makes truck moves from Savannah less efficient.
To deal with the congestion, last year the Georgia Ports Authority opened the Appalachian Regional Port (ARP) in Crandall, Georgia, close to the border with Tennessee. The ARP, which brings intact international containers via CSX rail service, eliminates a 710-mile truck trip on Georgia highways with each round-trip container move, according to the GPA.
Banton said the ARP does mean an overall shorter length-of-haul for AIS drivers. But overall, he is positive regarding the ARP’s development as it does mean less truck congestion and allows trucks easier access to Tennessee and northern Georgia, while bypassing Atlanta.
AIS is looking at developing a terminal near the ARP to serve those markets. Banton said the inland port means “a lot more market for Savannah to reach.”
“A lot of people think the rail projects are going to be taking an opportunity away from trucking, but I have never seen anything on the train that hasn’t also moved by truck,” Banton said. “You may lose a little bit on the longer haul, but you pick it up on the local drayage.”
The ability of drivers to be home at night by serving the inland port market rather than over-the-road markets also plays into trucking’s demographic change. Banton said 50- or 60-year old drivers will “migrate to containers so they have more time at home.”
As with any carrier, recruiting and retention are the most difficult things, Banton said. Thanks to the growth of the port, the Savannah market was flooded with companies with three or four trucks. AIS has had to raise wages three times over the last 18 months in order to retain drivers.
The competition in port trucking was much hotter last year, Banton said, when the port was experiencing double-digit import growth and many of the smaller carriers were using paper logs and likely running over their hours-of-service limits.
“Right after the electronic logging device was introduced, it reduced the number of competitors,” Banton said. “Freight overall is in a much healthier place with high single digit growth and because things settled down, some of the mom-and-pop shops have died off.”