Georgia Ports: Here we grow again

I’ve covered the “State of the Port” address in Savannah about six or seven times now. The meeting hosted by the Georgia Ports Authority and the Savannah chapter of the Propeller Club of the United States fills the Savannah Convention Center ballroom to capacity every year. 

It’s a room where economic interests meet political power. In attendance this year were Governor Brian Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, Speaker David Ralston, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The performance of Georgia’s ports is an unmitigated success story, and it is now annual custom to not only celebrate the past successes, but to hear what is next.

For most of the past years the address has been a model of predictability. The annual year over year growth of container traffic has been hovering around 7 percent for a while – significantly faster than other ports’ rate of growth. “Ro-Ro” automobile shipments continue to show strong growth in and out of Brunswick and Savannah as well.

Each year there are details about what the Ports Authority is doing to make the ports more efficient. Realigned and expanded rail terminals, larger and more environmentally sensitive cranes, and road realignments for direct access to and from freeways don’t excite the general public much. 

There is general theme that has developed, however, that resonates beyond the 1,500 or so folks that will sit in a packed ballroom and listen to a presentation about “TEU growth.” Simply put, the Georgia Ports Authority continues to grow by investing in its own efficiency. In doing so, they’re creating jobs not just in Georgia’s coastal area, but beyond. 

A couple of examples of Economic Development successes directly related to the port deserve to be highlighted here. California-based Plastic Express announced in April that it will invest $172 Million to build a facility in Pooler, Georgia near the Port of Savannah. It will employ 100 initially, growing to nearly 200 jobs in a couple of years. The average pay for these positions will be between 50 to 60 thousand dollars per year, according to the Savannah Morning News. Plastic Express will become the Port of Savannah’s biggest single customer by volume.

The jobs, however, aren’t all along the coast. General Electric is building a distribution center in Chatsworth, to be near the new Murray County “Inland Port” in the North Georgia mountains. The Ports Authority has been building inland port intermodal facilities with direct rail from the Ports to locations where containers can be transferred from train to truck well inland – getting trucks off of Georgia’s highways in the process.

Those are just two specific examples. The Port says that just in the last year, there were 68 port related projects resulting in $5 Billion in investment, creating 12,000 jobs. And there’s more to come. A lot more.

This year they didn’t announce 7 percent growth. Container traffic was up 17 percent. This increase in the rate of growth has allowed Savannah to eclipse Seattle-Tacoma to become the third largest container port in the country. Savannah now handles one in every five containers shipped along the east coast.

Georgia Ports are now competing with west coast ports for customers in Chicago and other upper Midwest locations. Because of the focus on efficiency between the ship and the port gates, a customer can ship goods from Asia through the Panama Canal to Savannah and still have them arrive in the central US as fast or faster than using ports along the West Coast.

Which brings us to the real news of the week. Savannah’s growth rate was projected to have the port reach capacity in a decade. With the port growing faster, that would come even sooner if nothing were done. Doing nothing isn’t GPA’s style, however.

The Georgia Ports Authority plans to develop land on Hutchinson Island and build a new ship terminal large enough for three more ships, plus realign their current dock for additional capacity. The plan is to double capacity – again.

The additional capacity will ensure the same story can continue to be told for years to come. Relentless pursuit of incremental improvements will continue to create jobs across the state of Georgia.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy solutions in the areas of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

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