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Port of Savannah accelerating expansion amid cargo surge

Supply Chain Ports Georgia
Stephen B. Morton/AP
FR56856 AP
A rail mounted gantry crane lifts a 40-foot shipping container and loads it onto a rail car at the Georgia Ports Authority Mason Mega Rail Terminal, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Savannah, Ga. The Georgia Ports Authority has announced it has opened all 18 working tracks at its rail terminal increasing the port's intermodal capacity by more than 30 percent. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

The Georgia Ports Authority agreed Monday to accelerate a $150 million expansion at the Port of Savannah in response to a surge in cargo volumes that has cramped its container yard and kept ships waiting at sea.

The state agency's governing board approved a plan to increase by 25% Savannah's capacity for cargo containers by June.

The new space for storing containers waiting to be loaded onto ships, trucks or trains will cover roughly 150 acres (60 hectares), said Griff Lynch, the port authority's executive director. He said more than a third of that new capacity should be ready by January and the port ultimately will be capable of handling 1.6 million additional cargo containers per year.

"It was in our long-range plan, but we're expediting it," Lynch said. "None of this was planned for this year or next year."

Like other U.S. seaports, the Port of Savannah has scrambled to work through traffic jams caused by record volumes of shipping containers piling up as the economy rebounds from the pandemic. Savannah has the nation's fourth-busiest port for cargo shipped in containers. The giant metal boxes are used to transport a wide range of goods from consumer electronics to frozen chickens.

The surge caused Savannah's port to see its busiest month ever in October, when the number of container units of imports and exports crossing its docks exceeded 500,000 for the first time. The port handled a record 5.3 million container units in the 2021 fiscal year that ended June 30.

Officials have been using inland sites to temporarily store cargo and free up space at Savannah's container terminal. The port authority was authorized by the federal government to use $8 million in leftover grant money to set up four such "pop up" container yards in different areas of the state.

Lynch said efforts to reduce the backlog are paying off. The Savannah port had about 67,000 containers at its terminal Monday, he said, compared to roughly 85,000 in September. And the 13 ships anchored off the coast waiting to enter the port was about half the peak number months ago.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Lynch said. "We think this will continue on up through the first quarter of 2022 at least."

The $150 million container yard expansion covers not only converting undeveloped land for container storage but also equipment. The board Monday agreed to spend $24.4 million on new electric-powered cranes to lift and move containers in that new space.