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Savannah Port Stashes Container Overflow in ‘Popup’ Yards

Major U.S. ports are scrambling for answers on alleviating their ongoing congestion problem, with the top West Coast ports resorting to both implementing container dwell fees and establishing a new queuing system. In Georgia, congestion at the Port of Savannah has officials now turning to temporary overflow yards, including a local airport, to relieve the burden.

As part of the Biden-⁠Harris Action Plan for America’s Ports and Waterways, the Georgia Port Authority (GPA) will be able to reallocate more than $8 million to convert existing inland facilities into five popup container yards in both Georgia and North Carolina. Under the plan, the Port of Savannah will transfer containers via rail and truck further inland closer to their final destination, which would ideally make available valuable real estate closer to the port.

The GPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The first off-dock spillover yard will open Wednesday at the Norfolk Southern railroad’s Dillard Yard, five miles from the port, with room for 43,200 standard shipping units.

At full buildout, the federally funded South Atlantic Supply Chain Relief Program will provide up to 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units of supplemental capacity, according to the GPA.

The Statesboro airport, which is an approximately one-hour drive west of Savannah, will begin receiving containers on Nov. 22. The port authority will leverage an unused runway strip able to hold 900 containers at any one time. Port officials worked with the local airport and the Federal Aviation Administration to get approval for the project. The facility has 78,000 TEUs of annual capacity.

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On Dec. 17, the port authority will begin shuttling containers by rail to Atlanta’s Hulsey Yard, a CSX-operated facility with a capacity of up to 104,000 TEUs.

“This is the relief we needed in order to regain terminal efficiency and speed up vessel service,” said GPA board chairman Joel Wooten. “By reclaiming this space on terminal, we can begin to reduce the backlog of vessels at anchor. 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.”

Similar to the Port of Savannah, The Port of Long Beach recently made arrangements with the Utah Inland Port Authority to evacuate containers by rail and manage onward distribution in Salt Lake City to alleviate gridlock there.

Simply put, ports like Savannah and Long Beach have been facing a complete lack of space as clogged container yards prevent ships from unloading efficiently and limit trucking companies’ abilities to return containers to facilities.

The added yardage comes as Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp unveiled on Friday that the GPA completed and is now operating a second set of nine new rail tracks for a total of 18 tracks at its Mason Mega Rail Terminal. The expansion immediately increases intermodal capacity to and from the Port of Savannah by more than 30 percent.

Since Sept. 1, GPA already has seen a 60 percent reduction in the amount of time containers are on the terminal. The improved flow of cargo and additional space at Garden City Terminal enabled the Port of Savannah to expedite vessel service, reducing the number of ships waiting at anchor by 40 percent, it said.

According to the GPA operations dashboard, as of Nov. 8, there were 18 ships at anchor, down from 23 the week before. The Garden City Terminal drew 83,057 total containers, still far from the port’s goal of 61,000 containers. And import dwell time averaged 8.57 days, still double the four days the port is shooting for.

Money has been flowing in elsewhere for the state’s port authority in an effort to keep cargo moving. In late September, the GPA board approved more than $34 million to help expedite an additional 1.6 million twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) in capacity that will begin coming online in December.

Part of the approved expenditures included the purchase of 22.2 acres adjacent to GPA’s 145-acre West Expansion property. In total, the developments will add 230 acres of container handling space, coming online in phases with full completion in 2023.

The Port of Savannah handled 504,350 TEUs in October, the first time it has surpassed 500,000 TEUs in a month, for an increase of 8.7 percent or 40,250 TEUs over October 2020. This beat GPA’s previous all-time record of 498,000 TEUs set in March.

Starting Dec. 1, GPA’s Peak Capacity project will begin coming online in phases, delivering 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. GPA is also building a new big ship berth at Garden City Terminal to accommodate additional 16,000-TEU vessels.

Last month, White House port envoy John Porcari said the yard solution may be explored in the Port of Los Angeles, noting the option to create “inland pop up sites that can be used to ground containers on an interim basis.” Porcari said doing this “on either public or private property” could provide “some temporary help.”

Of course, even this temporary relief still needs manpower to get the maximum output. The current trucker shortage has posed problems for the intermodal transport of goods throughout the U.S. The American Trucking Associations says the shortage amounts to 80,000 fewer truck drivers than what’s needed to satisfy demand. Additionally, despite extended hours at the West Coast ports designed to get truck drivers into the terminals at all times, warehouses traditionally don’t offer the same 24/7 access.