Georgia Ports - expansion and efficiency

In September 2018, Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) announced an ambitious plan for the Port of Savannah facility as Senior Director Robert C. Morris explains, and he details the features that make the port such an attractive destination for OEMs and shippers. By Simon Duval Smith

GPA has a 10-year, $2.5 billion plan to expand the capacity of the nation’s fastest growing terminal from 5.5 million twenty-foot equivalent unit containers (TEUs) to 8 million.

This plan includes the Mason Mega Rail facility project, which will double the Port of Savannah’s rail capacity to 1 million lifts per year by 2020; new equipment purchases including eight additional ship-to-shore cranes and 64 additional rubber-tired gantry cranes; gate and container storage expansions, berth improvements and off terminal road additions. 

In just the past year, GPA handled a record 4.2 million TEUs, for an impressive 8.4% increase, or 325,000 additional units. Intermodal rail lifts surged to 435,000, an increase of 16.1%, or more than 60,000 additional moves, another GPA record.

A deeper harbour for bigger ships

Work on the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) is expected to be finished in late 2021 and a US Army Corps of Engineers study estimates the deepening’s net benefit in transportation savings for shippers and consumers at $282 million per year. The expected total savings to the nation over the course of 50 years is $14.1 billion. For every dollar spent on construction, the project will return 7.3 dollars to the nation’s economy through savings on cargo transportation – one of the largest returns on investment on a navigation project for taxpayers in the country.

As deeper water allows larger vessels to call on the Port of Savannah, the GPA, along with its state partners, will be examining future infrastructure requirements, including air draft capacity of the Talmadge Bridge. Although no such vessels currently call on the US East Coast, the port could handle some vessels up to 19,000 TEU capacity. 

Attracting automotive business

GPA has a great number of warehouses, distribution centres and other facilities that would be the envy of many ports and Robert Morris says he feels these factors make the port an attractive destination for automotive shippers, OEMs and vehicle processors, plus a special feature that helps exporters to certain regions. “The Georgia Ports has 1.4 million square feet of warehouse space at the Ocean Terminal in Savannah, Georgia. With this amount of heated warehouse space, we are in a good position to offer fumigation facilities for OEMs wanting to export finished vehicles to countries like Australia and New Zealand that require fumigation of the brown marmorated stink bug during certain times of the year. 

“In addition, being a warm weather port means lower heating costs to keep the warehouses at the temperature required for fumigation. Three to four vessels a month from Ocean Terminal to Australia and New Zealand keep the finished vehicles moving through the terminal and thus arriving to the dealerships in a timely manner.”

Putting automotive first
Robert C. Morris

Robert C. Morris

I ask Morris to list some of the greater features of GPA, particularly what makes the port so attractive to demanding OEM customers? He starts by citing Colonel’s Island Auto /Ro-Ro Port advantages in Brunswick, Georgia. “We believe that the Colonel's Island Auto Port Facility, is more than simply price competitive; besides the cooperative spirit, skill and experience of the Brunswick maritime community, there are numerous advantages for locating in Brunswick, Georgia. Some, but not all the advantages, are as follows: inland cost savings to various destinations and superior service at more than competitive rates. We achieve this through such initiatives as information systems that meet all the requirements for the maritime community for data exchanges, we have three berths available for discharging Ro-Ro ships. As mentioned before, the fourth berth application is under review by the US Corps of Engineers.

“This is backed up by the three auto processing facilities ensuring the highest quality for OEMs’ vehicles and a labour force that is non-union and well trained to carry out auto processing to the highest standards. 

“Also, our facilities put automotive first; automobiles are ‘Number 1’ in Brunswick, unlike other ports where they are moved to a back-up roll. There are no container operations on Colonel’s Island. It is a dedicated Ro-Ro port and we have secured facilities not only at the entrance to the terminal complex, but also within the processing facilities. Added to this, our Brunswick channel has a project depth of -36 feet MLW and a 7.5 foot tide.

“We have a ‘teamwork’ approach to conducting business between the maritime industry, auto processors, and automobile manufacturers, steamship lines, trucking companies, rail service providers and GPA personnel that is evident throughout the Port of Brunswick, providing a ‘can-do’ spirit in the operation of the terminal.”

An attractive port for processors

GPA has attracted several major automotive processors including IAP, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions (formerly Atlantic Vehicle Processors), and Mercedes-Benz USA; in 2017 these processors served some 20 carmakers. An important consideration is whether there is space, both physically and business-wise, for more processors and what will attract them as imports continue to grow, from Mexico and other sources. Morris says that expansions and upgrades will see more opportunities for business. “There are presently 678 acres (approximately 90,000 car parking spaces) that the Georgia Ports had leased, sold or committed to for the auto processors. There are approximately 400 acres that have been permitted by the US Army Corps of Engineers for development on Colonel’s Island for finished vehicles. The redevelopment of the +/- 60 acres where the Bulk Terminal was located is being designed for finished vehicles and Ro-Ro cargos. 

“On the south side of Colonel’s Island, 100 acres are being designed for the next phase of our expansion for finished vehicles and auto processing. The 2nd Entrance Gate is being upgraded along with a road extension and two roundabouts that will improve the movement of vehicles throughout Colonel’s Island.”

Ocean carriers and Ro-Ro berths

To feed the demand created by the global expansion of OEMs’ manufacturing facilities, a port must provide multiple berths that can be flexible and that is GPA’s aim, as Morris explains. “The Colonel’s Island Auto Port has nine ocean carriers calling on a regular basis. The Georgia Ports Ro-Ro Terminals in Savannah and Brunswick are the second busiest Ports for Ro-Ro cargo in the US. There are three dedicated Ro-Ro Berths on Colonel’s Island and a fourth Berth is being planned as the business continues to grow. The US Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing our request for a fourth berth. 

“At Ocean Terminal in Savannah, a seven-acre expansion is being designed for the next phase of expansion for Ro-Ro opportunities.”

Rail and road connections

Some port operators that I have talked to have spoken of bottlenecks caused by shortages of rolling stock and road infrastructure but Morris says that GPA is well served in these areas. “The Colonel’s Island Auto Port offers two Class I railroads to destinations in the Midwest, Gulf states and across the country all the way to California. The CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern railroads connect to the Myd Harris Rail Yard on Colonel’s Island via the Golden Isles Terminal Rail Road, which provides all rail switching services on Colonel’s Island.

“The trucking companies say the connection to I-95 only 2.5 (4km) miles away from the Main Gate on Colonel’s Island Auto Port via State Route 17 a four-lane highway is second to none in the US. Immediate access to I-95 means key cities and manufacturing plants throughout the US Southeast, Gulf and Midwest may be reached within a one-to two-day drive.”

I ask Morris about what can be done to speed rail connections to move vehicles more quickly. He says expansion will be key to this: “The Anguilla rail yard has recently been expanded to 39,013 lineal feet of rail track to handle unit trains. In addition to Anguilla Junction, the Myd Harris rail yard on Colonel’s Island has 15,010 of rail track. As demand requires, future plans call for the construction of rail track on 55 acres on the south side of Colonel’s Island to handle unit trains of automobiles.

“In addition, our plans will add three rail pads for the handling of vehicles from rail cars on the two loop tracks on the north side of Colonel’s Island. Rail will play a major role in giving the auto manufacturer the velocity they require to expedite vehicles to the marketplace throughout the entire US and from the auto manufacturing plants to Brunswick for export to world markets.”

Developing tomorrow’s labour force

GPA has worked hard to develop a workforce to meet the increasing demands on its facilities by reaching out to educational establishments to promote the port as a great place to work. Morris lists some of the port’s initiatives. “We are very proud of our YES (Youth learning Equipment and Safety) Program. GPA is hiring and training recent high school graduates, providing an entry point into a logistics career, and expanding GPA’s labour pool.

“YES participants will shadow experienced workers before beginning more formal training. At Garden City Terminal, YES hires will learn forklift and jockey truck operation. Training will include safety and readiness inspections for jockey trucks, radio and equipment use, and safe work practices. The programme involves both hands-on and classroom instruction.

“At Ocean Terminal, YES trainees will learn warehouse operations and proper breakbulk cargo handling.The first six participants hired through the programme were referred to GPA by school administrators after taking classes and expressing interest in logistics as a career.

“YES participants will train for their eventual positions, how to handle finances and other life skills. The programme is aimed at developing additional equipment operators, the training will take one year. Participants will be paid during the training period, with a pay increase upon completion of the training.”

Multi-layered security

Security has often been spoken of as a major problem at ports with concerns over theft and damage. I ask Morris what measures does the port have in place to help OEMs feel their vehicles are secure. “The Georgia Ports Authority deploys its own police and security force to monitor, patrol and respond to all incidents on Colonel’s Island. The police and security force is present 24 hours a day. The facility also has layers of security that include fencing, cameras and a very robust access control system.

“Additionally, the facility is regularly audited by the United States Coast Guard for the highest levels of security compliance required for US seaports. In all instances we have passed these audits and received the highest level of acknowledgment from said Coast Guard auditors.”

Challenges and solutions

To get an overall view, I ask Morris what he feels are the greatest challenges facing ports and port operators in North America. He says infrastructure and space restrictions are considerable challenges to many facilities. “One of the greatest challenges facing ports and port operators in North America is space in close proximity to the deep water berths. Most ports in the US are hampered by lack of room to grow. As you can see from the responses above we have room to expand at the Colonel’s Island Auto Terminal.

“We are planning for and investing in an exciting, expanding automotive-focused future.” 

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