By Karen E. Thuermer, AJOT

While competition remains heated among US East Coast ports, Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) is steam rolling ahead. A milestone, fiscal year 2006 (ending June 2006) saw GPA handle a record 2,041,846 teus, thereby making its Port of Savannah the fourth largest port in the United States behind Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York/New Jersey.

“Our growth has been tremendous,” says John M. Wheeler, GPA director of Trade Development. ‘We are now the number four port in the country.’

GPA’s throughput for FY 2006 signifies a 15.9% increase in teus over FY 2005. Total GPA intermodal rail lifts also rose 23.1% for the year further increasing Georgia’s reach into expanding markets. Auto and machinery units handled by the GPA totaled 376,446, an increase of 8.2%. In Brunswick, a record 368,475 units were handled at Colonel’s Island Terminal alone. The sixth busiest auto port in the nation, Brunswick saw the export/import of autos climb 14% over FY 2005.

Volumes continue to climb. Through November 2006, GPA’s teus were up over 11% over the same period 2005. “This indicates another double digit growth year,” says Doug J. Marchand, GPA Executive Director.

Savannah manages the lion’s share of GPA’s containerized freight, while Brunswick focuses on breakbulk cargoes such as automobiles and other rolling stock. Significant to increased volumes at Savannah is the completion of Phase I of container berths 8 and 9. With the addition of the new container berths, Garden City Terminal’s dock now spans 9,693 linear feet. Completion of Phase II is scheduled for first quarter 2007; Phase III, first quarter 2008. Work is ongoing on the phasing area behind the berths.

In Brunswick, several rail improvement projects were conducted and completed during 2006. Among them is the Highway 17 overpass that allows for unimpeded road and rail access to the north and south sides of Colonel’s Island, thereby making an additional 900 acres available for port development.

Savannah’s ability to attract significant distribution centers is the biggest ingredient to its high ranking. Another is the port’s unique facility that allows for growth.

“We are in a very enviable position,” Wheeler states. “The fact that we have over 1,200 total acres, with much being green space that can be developed, is unique. In addition, every project we have slated for development has already been funded.”

Add to that the fact the port now offers nine, 1,000-foot consecutive berths. “To have that flexibility is a great advantage,” he says.

A Roadmap for Growth

Currently, the most important project GPA is working on is the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP), which will take the Savannah River from a depth of 42 feet at MLW to 48 feet at MLW. Extensive environmental studies will soon be concluded by the Corps of Engineering with the project expected to begin digging in March 2008. Completion is expected by 2012.

Meanwhile, GPA’s Board of Directors has recently approved the Focus 2015 Plan, which entails $1.025 billion in landside and harbor side capital improvements such as terminal expansion, equipment acquisition, and infrastructure development/improvement initiatives at both the deepwater parts of Savannah and Brunswick over the next 10 years. Included is nearly $20 million for the Automated Terminal Asset Management System Project (ATAMS) that will improve the velocity of operations and work flow in the yard. Equipment on order includes 15 rubber-tire gantry (RTG) cranes and four super Post Panamax cranes. The RTGs started arriving in December. All 15 should be in operation by May 2007. The ship-to-shore cranes should arrive by December 2007.

The plan originally estimated taking the port to five million teus. With 2006 growth higher than expected, the plan is being updated to account for the increased rate of growth.

Asia is predicted to remain a strong growth driver for GPA. Savannah offers 21 weekly services to and from Asia, the most of any US East Coast port.

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