Cargo congestion at the Port of Savannah is so severe that officials plan to use a small airport in Georgia as a temporary overflow yard, one of several locations being rushed into emergency service to relieve port infrastructure buckling under the strain of record volumes.
The Georgia Ports Authority on Friday said it is setting up multiple inland locations as temporary container yards to expedite the flow of imports and exports at Savannah, the fourth largest container port in the nation. Containers will be shuttled to the facilities by truck or rail to create more space for cargo coming off vessels and stacking cranes to maneuver.
The first off-dock spillover yard will open Wednesday at the Norfolk Southern railroad’s Dillard Yard, 5 miles from the port, with room for 43,200 standard shipping units. At full buildout, the South Atlantic Supply Chain Relief Program will provide up to 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units of supplemental capacity, the GPA said.
The Statesboro airport, about an hour’s drive west of Savannah, will begin receiving containers on Nov. 22. The port authority will use an unused runway strip that will be able to hold 900 containers at any one time, GPA spokesman Robert Morris said. Port officials worked with the local airport and the Federal Aviation Administration to get approval for the project. The facility has 78,000 TEUs of annual capacity.
On Dec. 17, the port authority will begin shuttling containers by rail to the Hulsey Yard in Atlanta, operated by freight railroad CSX. It will take up to 104,000 TEUs.
Port officials said they are working closely with both railroads to provide inland and off-dock locations to move long-dwelling imports off Savannah’s Garden City Terminal. Officials said that by reclaiming space on the terminal they can reduce the backlog of vessels at anchor.
As of Monday, there were 18 container vessels waiting in the Atlantic Ocean for a berth in Savannah, according to an operations dashboard on the GPA’s website.
“We think this will make a huge difference for both importers and exporters as we clear out our yard,” said GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch, in a statement.
The emergency storage yards are funded in part by $8 million in reallocated federal funds. On Monday, the Biden administration instructed the Department of Transportation to allow more flexibility in how port grants are used.
The department will issue a temporary exception to its policy under the Port Infrastructure Development Program allowing port authorities to redirect project cost savings toward tackling trucking, rail and terminal inefficiencies that are preventing swift evacuation of containers from ports. If a project already selected for a grant award comes in under budget, grant recipients may now propose to reduce their nonfederal share of the investment if they use those cost savings for activities that will alleviate the current port congestion and supply chain disruption.
The White House said the Georgia Ports Authority would also set up overflow yards in North Carolina.
Georgia and South Carolina already operate a handful of permanent inland ports, transfer yards that essentially move the seaport closer to businesses involved in international trade and reduce truck traffic at the docks. The Port of Long Beach recently made arrangements with the Utah Inland Port Authority to evacuate containers by rail and manage onward distribution in Salt Lake City to alleviate gridlock there.
A major freight rail project will also increase terminal throughput and speed up delivery times. On Friday, the GPA commissioned the second set of nine new rail tracks at its Mason Mega Rail Terminal, immediately increasing intermodal capacity in Savannah by more than 30%.
The massive rail yard “is coming online at the perfect time to help address the influx of cargo crossing the docks at the Port of Savannah,” said Gov. Brian Kemp.
The average import dwell time for containers is more than 8.5 days, double the goal of four days, according to the operations dashboard. Exports are waiting nearly eight days to get on a vessel, and empty containers are sitting 16.5 days against a target of 10 days. There are 23,000 more containers on the docks than maximum capacity.
Since Sept. 1, the amount of time containers sit on the terminal in Savannah has decreased by 60% as major retailers have begun picking up cargo more quickly, the GPA said. The improved fluidity and additional space have allowed dockworkers to expedite vessel service, reducing the number of vessels in queue by 40%.
Savannah is still able to get truckers in and out of the terminal quickly. Turn times are 41 minutes for a single move and an hour when dropping an empty container and picking up an import load, which compare favorably to pre-pandemic levels and productivity at ports.
Officials say many truckers are taking advantage of weekend gates and night gates between 7 and 11 p.m.
The GPA also announced it had, for the first time ever, handled more than 500,000 TEUs in a single month. The Port of Savannah processed 504,350 TEUs in October, an increase of 8.7% over October 2020. The volume surpassed the GPA’s previous record of 498,000 TEUs set in March.
The GPA, which has a reputation for investing in productivity enhancements well before demand, has ramped up capital projects to keep up with the crush of freight.
In December, the GPA’s Peak Capacity project will begin coming online in phases, delivering 820,000 TEUs of additional annual capacity by March. The first phase of the project includes three new rubber-tired gantry cranes and space for 300,000 TEUs of capacity. Phase two will add a fourth row of container storage and additional empty container space.
Another 18 acres now under development will add 400,000 TEUs of capacity by July, for a total of 1.2 million TEUs of additional space.
Construction of a 25-acre chassis yard is scheduled to be completed. in March.
The GPA is also building a new ship berth to accommodate more 16,000-TEU vessels. The berth is 17% complete and scheduled to come online in 2023. It will allow the Garden City Terminal to simultaneously serve four 16,000-TEU vessels, and three additional ships.
Officials have also ordered eight new ship-to-shore cranes. They are scheduled to arrive in 2023, bring the terminal’s total fleet to 38.
Meanwhile, the Savannah River deepening project, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is 93% complete. With a high-tide depth of 54 feet, the deeper harbor will allow vessels in the 16,000+ TEU range to take on heavier loads with fewer tidal restrictions.