Charlie Harper: Port Growth Requires All of Georgia to Get Ready

Charlie Harper

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Sometimes the sound of success can also sound like a broken record. The Savannah port continues to grow, with yet another record breaking year now in the books. The Georgia Ports Authority provided details via press release:

“Over the last calendar year, the Port of Savannah moved an all-time high 3.73 million twenty-foot equivalent container units, an increase of 391,356 TEUs, or 11.7 percent compared to CY2014.

“The expansion was fueled in part by heightened demand in the U.S. Southeast, Savannah’s logistical advantages drawing new customers to Georgia, and cargo diverted from the West Coast,” said GPA Executive Director Curtis Foltz.”

Let’s go back to that first paragraph. Savannah, while a diverse port, has become the preeminent container port of the US. Now with the 4th largest amount of container traffic, it still grew at 11.7% last year. While some of that traffic increase was due to the West Coast ports’ labor issues, Savannah has traditionally found that new customers gained during these times tend to stick around.

Let’s put it this way. If the port of Savannah continues to grow at this pace, it will double its current traffic within 7 years.

Read that again. Already the 4th largest container port in the country, the port could double capacity in 7 years.  This isn’t just another “Savannah’s doing great” column, even though the port is knocking it out of the park.  Got that?  Let’s continue.

Savannah Port officials aren’t expecting the growth to be quite that fast, but they do expect that volume growth to occur in 10-12 years. At that time, the Port of Savannah will be approaching maximum capacity.

This is one of the reasons this bears watching. Much of Georgia has figured out that the Port of Savannah is key to economic development efforts, by giving them a link for current and future manufacturers to the rest of the world. I heard this in every corner of the state during a recent Georgia Transportation Alliance statewide tour.

That same opportunity also creates a need for action both at the port, and throughout Georgia’s transportation infrastructure.  Our current freight network is already above, at, or near maximum capacity in may critical sections of Georgia’s road and rail network.

Doubling the amount of freight coming through the port means double the containers moving in and out of the port. That’s a lot of additional trucks on the road, and/or a lot more rail cars moving down the tracks. That will mean additional capacity is needed on Georgia’s freeways. That will mean needing to figure out how to move this freight around Metro Atlanta and its congestion for containers not destined for Atlanta. 

The freight plan rolled out by the Governor and GDOT in early January includes dedicated truck lanes between Macon and McDonough on I-75 as a start. More freight management will be needed. Diverting as much freight as possible via rail and pipelines to lesson the need for additional roads will be key to maintaining the success of the ports without pushing Georgia’s roads beyond their limits.

The port itself is also at a decision point, and is looking to the next chapter. Quietly late last year, Georgia and South Carolina officials signed the paperwork to move forward on developing the “Jasper Terminal”, which will be on the SC side of the Savannah River and a bit closer to the open Atlantic waters from the current terminals at the Port of Savannah. The port will be jointly developed and owned by both Georgia and South Carolina. 

Those familiar with the long process that has Georgia only now beginning the dredging of the Savannah River understand how long it can take to get a federal permit for these things.  Then there’s construction.  We’re a minimum of ten years, and probably closer to 15, before permits will have been issued and an eventual $4.5 billion in new infrastructure constructed to establish the new port.  That’s why getting this permitting started now is critical.

This new permit request is a clear signal that even when Savannah reaches capacity in roughly a decade that freight traffic in Georgia will not stop or plateau.  Managing Georgia’s freight logistics is a full time policy obligation for those dealing with transportation or economic development.

We have a world class airport and world class ports.  We have to make sure the roads, rails, pipelines, and other pieces of Georgia’s logistics matrix are equally up to the world standards for all of Georgia to benefit, and to continue to maintain our personal mobility and quality of life. 

Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.