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Georgia ports launch new growth plan

Last week the Georgia Ports Authority held its State of the Port address in Savannah. The event has grown in stature and significance with Georgia’s ports. Among the 1,500 in attendance were House Speaker David Ralston, Governor Nathan Deal’s Chief of Staff Chris Riley, and Economic Development Commissioner Chris Carr.

During his brief remarks, Ports Authority Board Chairman James Allgood said the ports economic impact extends well beyond coastal Georgia. He noted a delegation from his hometown of Dublin as evidence.

I smiled and nodded at three individuals sitting across the table from me representing Yamaha, Inc. They had traveled down from Newnan for the event.

It was the first address for new Ports Director Griffith Lynch, who had the most extensive remarks of the day. He was able to break some economic development news, announcing that retailer Floor & Décor would be establishing a 1.4 million-square-foot warehouse in Pooler, bringing about 100 jobs to the Savannah area. The company expects to add a 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center in the near future.

The real question, if there was one, would be one of any major changes in direction under Lynch. He is, after all, replacing a director who oversaw a major expansion in traffic and capacity at Georgia’s ports. Brunswick is now the second-largest U.S. port for roll-on, roll-off cargo — i.e, automobiles. Savannah has been the fastest-growing port for container traffic over the last decade, doubling the growth rate of any other port.

The ports have become an East Coast leader by thinking big. Lynch made it clear that the Georgia Ports Authority is thinking even bigger.

The port is adding acreage to be able to process additional cars moving through the port at Brunswick. Savannah, meanwhile, will be completely re-tooling its rail operations with an eye to the East.

The idea behind a major overhaul and capacity increase of the port’s rail yards is simple: The more efficiently goods can be moved through the port to and from ships to trains, the more quickly cargo can reach its end customer. Efficiency of operations is one of the main selling points of Savannah to current and potential customers.

The Ports Authority is now thinking even bigger with its rail partners — and with its potential customer base. Lynch announced during his remarks a plan to combine the two existing rail yards into one supersized yard, significantly increasing the rail capacity to move goods in and out of the port. Trains of about 10,000 feet in length — almost two miles long — can be constructed completely within the confines of the new port rail yard.

The enhancements in rail capacity aren’t all about existing and potential customers in Georgia, or even the Southeast. Port officials have noted that during the last two West Coast dock strikes, Savannah’s container operations saw a spike in business. They have been able to retain a large number of clients formerly served by West Coast ports.

They’re now aiming to proactively take many of these customers in the nation’s midsection. Expanded and more efficient rail is key to making this happen. Trains of the length anticipated reduce per unit shipping costs significantly.

By lowering costs and speeding shipping times, port officials will be able to make a compelling case to new customers in a “Mid-American Arc.” Twenty-five trains a week are anticipated in order to serve the Midwest, bound for distribution hubs such as Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio.

Georgia launched on an “inland port” concept years ago, opening the first such operation for direct high-speed freight access from Cordele. A second inland port is now under construction near Chatsworth in Murray County, near the Tennessee line. Additional locations are actively being sought in the state.

Inland ports have allowed Georgia Ports to position itself as the dominant player in the Southeastern U.S. The target of a new Mid-America Arc expands on the existing success. Georgia is ready to assert itself as a “gateway port” — one that serves not just the region where we are, but areas significantly farther to the east and north.

The plan is ambitious and bold. The port, however, has a track record of success combined with consistent incremental improvement that translates to their customers’ bottom line. So long as that continues, Georgia’s ports will continue to increase traffic, making larger annual contributions to our state’s economy as well.

Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state and local politics of Georgia.