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Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) has underscored its ambition to maintain growth at the port of Savannah with plans to accommodate increasing numbers of ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs).

An expansion programme unveiled on 5 February outlines ambitions for the port to be able to handle six 14,000 teu ships simultaneously by 2024.

It can currently serve two at its Garden City container terminal, but by April this will go up to three ULCVs.

“No other single container terminal in North America has the ability to expand berth capacity at this rate,” said GPA executive director Griff Lynch, announcing the Big Berth/Big Ship programme at the Georgia Foreign Trade Conference.

GPA intends to add 21 neo-panamax ship-to-shore cranes, to replace 14 older models, and aims to have 37 ship-to-shore cranes in operation when the programme is completed. In addition, it plans to add 12 rubber-tyred gantry cranes to its yard operations.

Logistics providers and shipping lines welcomed the plans.

“We have over the years worked with the GPA to prepare for the ‘Big Ship’ era and its continued commitment to invest and prepare for growth is very positive,” said a spokesman for Maersk, which, in tandem with MSC and ZIM, and its subsidiary, Sealand, slots 10 vessels a week through Savannah.

The port reached a new high in January with a 28% rise in throughput, to 433,975 teu. It clocked up 7.5% growth last year to reach 4.35m teu, following 10.6% growth in 2017.

GPA claimed Savannah’s growth outpaced all other major US ports between 2007 and 2017, showing compound annual growth of 4.5%.

To stay ahead of that curve, the port authority announced in September it intended to raise capacity to 8m teu by 2028, up from 5.5m teu currently.

Besides the expansion of the Panama Canal, the economy of the state of Georgia has been a powerful driver of Savannah’s growth – over the past two years, nine million square feet of industrial real estate has come onstream in Savannah, and another 9.2 million is under construction.

A new impetus for growth took shape after the US Department of Agriculture started its Southeast In Transit Cold Treatment pilot programme to allow perishables imports through ports in the south-east US. Previously, such imports had to be moved through north-eastern ports, owing to temperature thresholds, to prevent contamination. The new regime has meant ports like Savannah and Charleston could pursue perishables imports from Latin America.

One major reefer player, Americold, is moving into Savannah to develop this traffic. On 1 February the company announced it was taking over PortFresh Holdings, a temperature-controlled operator. Americold management indicated it planned to build a 15m cu ft storage facility on land owned by PortFresh adjacent to the port.

Both Americold and the GPA are looking beyond state borders to grow their businesses. It is the port authority’s declared goal to transform Savannah into a load centre not only for the south-eastern US but for major inland markets east of the Mississippi river.

GPA is also working on a massive rail expansion project that aims to double the port’s rail lift capacity to 1m containers a year. The first phase of this is scheduled for completion in October, with the second due to be finished 12 months later.

A second prong in the authority’s rail strategy to open up the interior is the development of inland regional ports. In November, it announced plans for an inland distribution facility in north-east Georgia, with a connecting rail line operated by Norfolk Southern. This follows the opening of the GPA’s first inland intermodal terminal last summer in north-west Georgia, linked to the port by rival rail giant CSX.

Sources close to the GPA have indicated that more inland distribution points are on the drawing board.


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