Georgia Ports Authority opens nine new tracks at Mason Mega Rail Terminal, sees backlog relief

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The Georgia Ports Authority announced the opening of nine additional tracks for the Mason Mega Rail Terminal, marking a major milestone in the ports' expansion. Nov. 12, 2021.
The Georgia Ports Authority announced the opening of nine additional tracks for the Mason Mega Rail Terminal, marking a major milestone in the ports' expansion. Nov. 12, 2021.

Nine new rail tracks came online Friday at the Georgia Ports Authority's Mason Mega Rail Terminal, marking a major milestone at the Port of Savannah and a welcome relief in the midst of a global supply chain backlog.

The expansion puts the rail terminal at 18 tracks and increases intermodal capacity to and from the Port of Savannah by more than 30%. The opening is expected to reduce the pileup attributed largely to pandemic-induced consumer spending, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in remarks at a press conference on Friday.

Governor Brian P. Kemp at the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Mason Mega Rail tracks. Nine new rails officially came online Nov. 12, 2021.
Governor Brian P. Kemp at the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Mason Mega Rail tracks. Nine new rails officially came online Nov. 12, 2021.

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"The added rail capacity, along with new container storage on and off terminal, are already serving as important tools to resolve the supply chain issues for Georgia and the nation," said Kemp.

Supply chain relief measures underway

Containers are stacked at the Georgia Ports Authority.
Containers are stacked at the Georgia Ports Authority.

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President Biden recently steered $8 million towards setting up "pop-up container yards" to increase capacity at the Savannah Port, which has seen months of record-breaking volume come through its terminals. Those funds are coming from leftover federal monies tied to GPA's Berth 1 expansion, according to GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch, and was made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that Biden signed into law on Monday.

The GPA and its two Class I rail providers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, have worked in tandem to identify eight previously underutilized or unutilized container yards in locations including Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama for overflow storage space.

"This moves the location closer to the customer base," Lynch explained, "So we have an example of a new yard that will set up in Atlanta with CSX. We're going to take containers via CSX out to Atlanta. So, instead of a truck driver having to travel 220 miles one way and another way, the new facility will be 35 to 50 miles from their location."

The first off-terminal overflow container yard will open as soon as Monday and be closer to home at the Norfolk Southern's Dillard Yard in west Savannah. Two more pop-up yards will open in the following weeks, and all eight will be ready by the end of the year, said Lynch.

About a month ago, the GPA recorded 80,000 shipping containers sitting at the ports' terminal - 50% more than usual, according to Lynch. While that number hasn't changed, since Sept. 1, the GPA has seen a 60% reduction in the amount of time containers are on terminal.

Additionally, there's been a 40% reduction of ships at anchor this past month, said GPA's Chief Communications Officer Robert Morris. The average number of ships at anchor this past week was somewhere around 19. When congestion was at its worst, the number was as high as 30, said Morris.

"I think once we see that come down to 10 and into single digits, you'll see us really pick up the speed as well," said Lynch.

During Kemp's remarks, he pointed out that the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach had 110 ships at anchor as of Friday morning. The Port of Los Angeles is the largest port in North America.

The supply chain clog has afflicted every stage of the process, causing employees to work as much as 40% overtime. Adding to the stress is a shortage of chassis, the apparatus that carries freight containers on trucks. Drivers could be waiting for up to two hours for available chassis in order to move the pileup.

Lynch said the GPA does not provide its own chassis and that it could take up to a year to receive more. He looked to the pop-up container yards as the main source for relieving backup, isolating those containers and freeing up chassis.

"This is the relief we needed in order to regain terminal efficiency and speed up vessel service," said GPA Board Chairman Joel Wooten, "This groundbreaking partnership between cargo owners and logistics providers should serve as a model for the entire nation as we work to address supply chain challenges."

Growth at the ports continues

Meanwhile, the port's capacity continues to increase across all measures of growth. The GPA announced on Friday that the Port of Savannah has, for the first time in history, handled more than 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs - a port's unit of measurement), in a single month.

"We couldn't be moving a half-million TEUs per month without the combined effort of GPA employees, the International Longshoremen's Association, and the cargo owners who are clearing containers," said Lynch.

The new high of 504,350 TEUs handled in October marked an 8.7% year-over-year increase and surpassed a previous record of 498,000 TEUs set in March.

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Under way is the GPA's peak capacity project. One of the biggest expansions to come out of the project is the plan to add 1.6 million containers-worth of space to the Garden City Terminal. That expansion is set to open in stages starting in December.

The project will deliver 820,000 TEUs of additional annual capacity by March 2022. Another 18 acres now under development will add 400,000 TEUs of capacity by July, for a total of 1.2 million TEUs of additional space, according to the state's release.

The Garden City Terminal is currently the single largest and fastest-growing container terminal in North America and the Port of Savannah leads the nation in containerized agricultural exports.

Lynch said another $4 billion in expansions and improvements are slated for the next decade.

What is the future for residents?

A semitractor-trailer crosses the railroad track near the entrance to the Georgia Ports Authority in Garden City. About three times a day trains will block Georgia 25 as well as access to residential areas.
A semitractor-trailer crosses the railroad track near the entrance to the Georgia Ports Authority in Garden City. About three times a day trains will block Georgia 25 as well as access to residential areas.

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With the ports' growth headed only upwards, the amount of space it has left to expand outwards is a concern for nearby residents. Neighboring municipalities, Garden City and Port Wentworth, have felt the effects of the ports for decades, whether that's through traffic, railroads bisecting communities or industrial warehouses cropping up in residential neighborhoods.

While the Mason Mega Rail, slated for completion by the end of next year, aims to relieve congestion and completely clear a track that cuts through Garden City, it's not a complete solution. Some Garden City neighborhoods will remain barricaded by the CSX track, and surrounding cities will inevitably have to contend with other forms of industrialization.

Lynch said the GPA does not have plans to expand past Georgia 25, which would cross over into the residential community.

"We've got other things we're doing at Garden City, but, really, we're going to move to other locations and look to build container terminals in other places," said Lynch.

Looking farther into the future, the GPA is thinking of creating an overpass that will let residents travel "train free" and help further alleviate congestion in the community, he said.

"That's what people want and I understand that," said Lynch.

Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter covering Chatham County municipalities. Reach her at nguan@gannett.com or on Twitter @nancyguann.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Georgia Ports Authority expands Mason Mega Rail while supply chain recovers