Dredging on a long-awaited Georgia project that could earn the U.S. more than five times its investment may get underway full speed ahead as early as the end of this year. That's the expectation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, though the final word belongs to the U.S. Congress.
The Georgia Ports Authority has already begun its share of work on the Savannah Harbor expansion project, a deepening of the harbor that will allow super ships sailing through the enlarged Panama Canal to call upon the Port of Savannah. The Corps is responsible for dredging the Port, the turning basin and the shipping channel leading to the Atlantic Ocean.
“We know the shipping fleet is growing and the size of the ships are getting larger, too,” said Corps spokesman Billy Birdwell. “In order to accommodate those ships, we need a deeper harbor and channel up to the harbor. What we expect to gain from this is a greater increase in shipping efficiency. Larger ships mean fewer ships can move in and out more regularly. With that shipping efficiency we will gain significant benefit to the national economy. For every $1 we invest into this project, the national economy will get $5.50 back.”
The $652 million project has been in discussion with federal, state and local authorities for close to two decades. The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers approved the project in October 2012 and the project has received strong bi-partisan support from the U.S. Congress, including an endorsement by U.
S. Vice-President Joe Biden who said it must be accomplished, “come hell or high water.”
The port has begun designing improvements around bulkheads and docks to allow it to deepen the harbor and several berths from 42 to 47 ft. (12.8 to 14.3 m).
“Right now there are nine container berths,” said Chris Novack, director of engineer and facility maintenance for the Georgia Ports Authority. “Of those, four, five, six and seven require some additional construction improvements that will allow deepening.
“In addition to the deepening, we have to upgrade our fendering systems, our bollards that allow for tying off. We've already implemented these programs. That work is completed.”
The Corps has not let any contracts for deepening yet, but is awaiting the resolution of several issues in Congress, Birdwell said.
“We are anticipating that we may get contracts and some work started by end of this year but that is still subject to change at all times,” Birdwell said. “Once started, we anticipate it will take four to five years to complete.”
The Panama Canal is in the final stage of construction of a third set of locks that will allow ships too large for the original two locks to transit the expanded canal through the new lock.
Deepening the Savannah harbor and shipping channel is important because the larger ships carry significantly more containers, Birdwell said.
“The new ships are more efficient to operate. So as they move up to the harbor they are able to quickly move containers off and on with multiple cranes and the ships can be on their way.”
While large ships can currently call on the Georgia port, they are tidily restricted, Birdwell said.
That means they can only come and go only at high tide. Once in the port, they must wait for the next high tide. Likewise, incoming ships arriving at low tide must wait at sea for a high tide.
The project has gone through years of environmental scrutiny, which has resulted in numerous mitigation measures, including the installation of an oxygen injection system.
“We know there will be an impact on dissolved oxygen and that impacts fish and other marine life down there, Birdwell said. “We're having to install what are known as speece cones. That is a significant project. It pulls water out of the river, supersaturates it with oxygen and the water is put back into the river. We're installing them at 45 locations. As we go through, there is pre-construction monitoring, monitoring during construction, and post-construction monitoring for 10 years so we know the impacts for this. We anticipate we will only need oxygen injection on certain days, particularly on hot days.”
The Port of Savannah is the fourth largest container port in the United States behind Los Angeles, Long Beach and Newark. Its primary markets encompass 138 million people or 44 percent of U.S. consumers and businesses. Savannah handles eight percent of all U.S. containerized trade and nearly 12 percent of U.S. containerized exports, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.
While construction is ongoing, the Ports Authority estimates 352,146 full and part-time jobs will be created. The project is expected to generate a statewide economic impact of $18.5 billion in income, $66.9 billion in sales and $32.4 billion in GDP.
“This is a huge deal for us,” said Novack. “Right now we will be at 3 million TEUS [twenty-foot equivalent units] this year. We expect the growth to continue, and this type of improvement is necessary for the growth to continue in the Southeast.”
The project also is expected to save the U.S. economy an average $174 million in shipping costs annually for the next 50 years.
“We only look at 50 years,” Birdwell said. “But we know the harbor will be here a lot longer than that. In the later years, there will be even greater savings.”