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Thu July 29, 2021 - Southeast Edition
An inland port linking northeast Georgia to the Port of Savannah by rail appears to be on track for construction in the summer of 2022, with the goal of becoming operational by the end of 2024.
The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) has been working since late 2018 on developing the Northeast Georgia Inland Port, which will move cargo containers of imports and exports by train between the Gainesville area northeast of Atlanta and the docks in Savannah — a trip of approximately 300 mi. by truck.
The GPA has said the terminal, once complete, will have the capacity to move about 150,000 cargo containers each year via a new 324-mi. intermodal freight rail service to connect the Savannah River port directly to the 104-acre inland port at the Gateway Industrial Centre north of Gainesville.
Plans call for the terminal to include six railroad tracks with a combined length of about 18,000 ft. that connect with the Norfolk Southern Crescent Corridor.
The inland port's planners had earlier received a $46.87 million Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to build the facility.
According to the Gainesville Times, the GPA will next apply for a National Environmental Policy Act permit and work out a contract with the federal government, said Griff Lynch, executive director of the Authority. The process could take around nine months, Lynch said, but added that his office has all the permitting ready at the state level and will be able to begin construction once the federal approval is confirmed.
"When we apply for these projects one of the key components is how quickly can the project be developed," he noted.
In mid-June, Georgia's two U.S. senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, announced that the project would receive $2 million in federal and state grants to fund road and infrastructure improvements needed to open the rail terminal. The monies came from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank to improve White Sulphur Road, which would connect to the port.
In its document awarding the INFRA grant, the USDOT wrote: "The project supports economic vitality by reducing freight travel times by providing a direct freight rail link to the Port of Savannah; it will reduce the need for containers moving between the Gainesville area and the seaport … by truck."
Lynch told the Gainesville news outlet that the GPA has identified customers for the inland port but does not have contracts worked out yet.
There could also be a potential for positive environmental impacts with the inland port, he said, because "for every truck that we can move to rail, it's a truck mile saved [and] emissions saved."
The Times reported that the GPA was denied a grant for the same project in 2020, but Tim Evans, the vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said the Authority had to wait its turn for the competitive grant. He explained that the GPA had received a federal grant in 2019 but was not allowed to get one two years in a row.
"The feedback that we received last year was that that application was really, really good, but there is a political preference, or just a reality, that those INFRA dollars get spread around and don't get to go to the same places every time," Evans remarked to the Gainesville newspaper.
He explained that the Northeast Georgia Inland Port and its connecting rail will help alleviate wait times at the Port of Savannah because rather than waiting for a limited supply of truck drivers and trailer frames to transport containers, arriving ships can load directly onto a railcar.
"Just like the Silk Road provided a new trade route between Europe and the Far East this provides a new route for existing trade traffic for industries that are either exporting or importing products that go into their production lines," Evans said to the Times.
It is hard to estimate if the new inland port would cause enough new growth that could lead to increased truck traffic, he noted, adding that the number of containers the Gainesville facility is expected to handle each year is less than what a Wal-Mart or Amazon distribution center would handle.
"The truck traffic that this is expected to generate is actually already on the roads," Evans said.
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