Five feet, 60 inches. Not even two yards. By the measuring stick, it doesn’t sound like much, but a project to deepen the Port of Savannah channel from 42 to 47 feet will offer benefits that are almost beyond measure.
Channel deepening projects are nothing new at the Port of Savannah. In fact, over the last two centuries, the channel has been gradually deepened to its current depth.
The catalyst for the current proposed project, and others along the East Coast, is the first major expansion of the Panama Canal in its nearly 100-year history. When the Panama Canal project is completed in 2014, larger locks will accommodate super-sized cargo ships with three times the current capacity.
The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project – the subject of discussion and debate for some 15 years – is critical for the port to remain competitive in a global marketplace.
“The single most critical factor for the Port of Savannah’s future success, and its ability to move American-made goods to the international marketplace, is the completion of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project,” says Georgia Ports Authority Chairman of the Board Alec L. Poitevint. “This is precisely the type of effort that will bring comprehensive economic recovery to the United States.”
Not to mention its impact on the state economy. Already, Georgia’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals support more than 352,000 jobs throughout the state and contribute more than $80 billion to Georgia’s economy every year.
The nation’s fastest-growing port, Port of Savannah is also the shallowest port in the Southeast. Even today, about 80 percent of incoming vessels at the 1,200-acre facility have to endure a costly wait for high tide before they can cross the channel and deposit their deliveries.
By dredging another 5 feet of mud and sand from a 30-mile stretch of river bottom, the expansion project will increase the depth of the Savannah River to 47 feet at mean low water. That’s enough to accommodate the giant cargo ships that will come through after the Panama Canal expansion is complete – and will keep the port competitive.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the project will cost $652 million, with roughly 45 percent of that going to address environmental concerns. Federal funds are expected to pay two-thirds of the project with Georgia taxpayers picking up the rest of the tab.
The expected payback on that investment is promising. In fact, the Corps estimates the project will provide $174 million in economic benefits to the nation – that’s a $5.5 dollar gain for every dollar spent.
The Port of Savannah is the second busiest port for the export of American products, shipping 6.84 million tons of containerized cargo in fiscal year 2011. The port handles one out of every eight boxes destined for foreign markets, and is one of only a handful of American ports where exports exceed imports.
Those exports come from around the country – including poultry, peaches, clay and wood from Georgia – and impact 15 states representing nearly half of the nation’s population.
That impact could grow, too, as the expansion promises to draw new business with lower shipping costs. The deeper channel at Savannah will provide a more direct, all-water route to colossal ships that previously had to deliver their freight to deeper ports on the West Coast, where it was then transported across the country by rail. These savings could then be passed along to consumers.
“It is vital to deepen the port of Savannah in order to accommodate the larger ships already plying global trade routes,” says Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. “The deepening of the Savannah port will produce powerful economic benefits to the nation and to Georgia.”
President Obama apparently agrees. In a significant show of support in 2012, the President placed the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project on a fast track for federal approval as part of his “We Can’t Wait” initiative. A final decision on the project is expected from the Corps and the White House in fall 2012. If given the green light, work would begin early in 2013 and end by 2017.
For Georgia and the nation as a whole, the Port of Savannah has become a vital link to the world – a link that must be maintained. The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project shows that to plant the seeds of success in a global economy, you must first do a little digging.