Charlie Harper: Managing Success at Georgia’s Ports

Charlie Harper

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Two weeks ago I traveled to Savannah to attend the annual State of the Port address and tour Savannah’s Garden City terminal. The Port has been a political success story for years. Most of the recent narrative has been focused on the 15-year journey to secure permits and funding to dredge and deepen the Savannah River. This is necessary to accommodate bigger ships that will soon be able to pass through an upgraded Panama Canal. Perhaps lost in this story has been the rapid growth the port has already experienced on its ascension to becoming a world-class player.

I frankly was expecting to hear a lot about the deepening and how this would eventually lead to a payoff for the port, and thus, to the rest of Georgia. The forty-five minute presentation by Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Curtis Foltz had consumed forty minutes before dredging was mentioned. There’s a lot more going on down there. And Georgia is already benefitting.

In 2000, the Port of Savannah wasn’t among the country’s top 10 ports. Today, it’s number 4 and remains the fastest growing port in the U.S. We’re now the largest container port in the country, and our container volume is still growing faster than any other port. Traffic grew more than three times the average port’s container volume last year.

All of the revenues generated by the ports are reinvested in the ports. During the past decade, $807 Million has been re-invested in the port. Over the next decade, $1.4 Billion is planned to be added to the port’s infrastructure.

The continuous investment is partially responsible for the continued growth, but our port has a natural built in advantage that can’t be matched by others. Specifically, we have almost two miles of contiguous dock space at Savannah’s Garden City terminal, which handles the container volume. That means 1,200 contiguous acres with which to process the cargo that is put on and taken off of ships.

Our larger competitors spread their operations over six docks at New York and at Long Beach, and over 9 docks at Los Angeles. Our single-terminal container facility is a competitive advantage for both scale and efficiency that other ports could only wish for.

The advantages that allow for increasing volume go beyond the inherent structural efficiencies. Those at the port credit both an excellent relationship with the local chapter of the International Longshoreman’s Association, as well as a “Client Relations Center” which is a one stop shop for any truck driver, shipper, or other stakeholder having an issue with any port related issue.

Other ongoing infrastructure upgrades will put entering and exiting trucks directly from or two either I-16 or I-95 via connector road improvements. Gates and rail lines are being realigned to allow for longer trains to be assembled on the port property without having tracks cross roads used for local traffic.

What does this mean in terms of success for an average Georgian? According to the University of Georgia, it means $33.2 Billion dollars in state Gross Domestic Product and $20.4 billion in income. In 2015, private companies created 2,720 Georgia logistics jobs directly related to traffic from the Port of Savannah.

Another upside? The vacancy rate for industrial/warehouse space in the Savannah market is 3.7% – roughly at historic lows. This is down from 18.6% just five years ago. Director Foltz used part of the time in the briefing to plead for more speculative warehouse space to be built to meet current demand.

There are no signs the growth will be leveling off soon. And with this success comes additional challenges. Even though the railroads that serve the port have committed to increasing capacity to grow from 20 to 25% of container traffic to be moved by rail, that still leaves 75% of the trucks leaving the port by truck.

I-16 and I-95 are already congested in the area and the I-16 to I-75 interchange in Macon is already functionally obsolete. That’s before any of these trucks reach the congestion of metro Atlanta. Figuring out how to move even more products by rail and/or by pipeline will help reduce the capital cost needed to invest in even more roads for truck traffic.

Then there’s the port capacity itself. Within 15-20 years, the Port of Savannah will likely be at its capacity. Luckily, the States of Georgia and South Carolina have dedicated land east of Savannah for a future “Jasper Terminal” port. Permitting these things tends to take 10 to 15 years however.

The good news is the years to permit and fund the deepening of the Savannah River are coming to an end. The next challenge of making sure the port can continue to meet demand means there is no time to rest on these laurels.

Charlie Harper is the Editor In Chief of, and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy solutions in the areas of Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

As a bonus for Peach Pundit readers, here’s the 45 minute briefing referenced above by Director Foltz:

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government;