Savannah port

A worker unloads a breakbulk vessel at the Georgia Ports Authority’s Ocean Terminal in Savannah in this 2017 photo provided by the ports authority.

ATLANTA — Georgia’s deep-water ports are recovering quickly after taking some hits during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the Georgia Ports Authority said Thursday.

The number of twenty-foot equivalent container units, called TEUs, the Port of Savannah handled during the last fiscal year fell from 4.5 million to 4.4 million, largely due to the pandemic’s impact on business last spring, Griff Lynch, the authority’s executive director, said during his annual State of the Port address.

But by last month, business at Savannah was picking back up to the point that the port set a monthly record by moving 412,148 TEUs, an increase of 11.4% over the previous September.

To the south at the Port of Brunswick, roll/on, roll/off cargo – primarily autos – were up 1% during the first quarter of this year after declining by 8% during fiscal 2020.

“We’re actually breaking records in a pandemic,” Lynch said.

Lynch used the annual speech in Savannah – delivered online for the first time – to announce several new projects in and around the Port of Savannah and update ongoing improvements.

New projects include a 1.2-million-square-foot facility in Bryan County to be built by medical goods provider Medline Industries. Construction is expected to be completed late next year, with FedEx leasing 415,000 square feet to provide e-commerce capabilities.

Another 800,000-square-foot distribution center to handle e-commerce will be built in Liberty County, Lynch said.

At the Port of Savannah itself, plans call for straightening Berth 1 at the Garden City Terminal to expand its capacity to dock four 15,000-TEU container ships and three additional vessels simultaneously. The project will take approximately two years.

While the Berth 1 work is in progress, smaller container ships will use the port’s Ocean Terminal. Retrofitting the terminal to accommodate the container ships already is underway and should be finished by the end of this year, Lynch said.

Meanwhile, the deepening of Savannah Harbor to accommodate the new generation of giant container ships is 75% complete and due to be finished by the end of next year. The long-anticipated project has been accomplished in fits and starts over two decades due to the difficulties Georgia’s congressional delegation has faced getting enough federal funding for the work.

Also making good progress is the port’s Mason Mega Rail project, which will connect the Port of Savannah with cities in the Mid-South and Midwest. Rail cargo, which now accounts for 18% to 20% of lifts at Savannah, is expected to increase to 25% to 27% within five years.

Lynch also announced that another rail facility several hundred miles from Savannah soon will be expanded.

The Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth in Northwest Georgia, which opened two years ago primarily to move exports by rail to Savannah, soon will build a new facility that will expand its cargo capacity by 28,000 TEUs.

“We never expected it be as successful as it is,” Lynch said.

Further into the future, the port that has become the busiest in the nation for containerized cargo exports is planning to build a new terminal on Hutchinson Island on land the port authority already owns. The new terminal will let the authority add three new berths, increasing the Port of Savannah’s capacity by 3 million TEUs per year, Lynch said.

“We’re making strategic expansions to ensure cargo fluidity as Savannah’s container trade increases,” said Will McKnight, the authority’s board chairman. “Our long-term infrastructure investments ensure GPA is ready when our customers are ready to grow.”

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